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National Guard helps feed Kansas in hard times

Soldiers and Airmen of the Kansas National Guard help pack food at Harvesters in Topeka, Kansas, April 22, 2020. The food will be shipped to families across the state.

Soldiers and Airmen of the Kansas National Guard help pack food at Harvesters in Topeka, Kansas, April 22, 2020. The food will be shipped to families across the state.

TOPEKA, Kan. – Soldiers and Airmen of the Kansas National Guard are bringing food to families across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the Kansas National Guard started assisting Harvesters, a regional food bank serving communities in Kansas and Missouri, at their Kansas City and Topeka locations in April.

The food bank collects food to distribute to individuals or families who are in need by partnering with 760 non-profit agencies in Kansas that work in their communities. Their mission to feed hungry people today and work to end hunger tomorrow rings true as the COVID-19 virus has caused massive layoffs creating more demand across the state.

“We normally have about 241,000 people who are what’s called food insecure,” said Steve Davis, chief operating officer of Harvesters. “With the COVID-19 situation, that number has increased substantially, so our community partners are telling us that they’re feeding anywhere from 35% to 40% more people.”

Another obstacle Harvesters is having to overcome is the limited amount of volunteers as they stay home to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

“In a normal month, we work with about 6,500 volunteers who come in and donate their time here at the food bank,” said Davis. “With the stay-at-home orders and the social distancing we have reduced how many volunteers we have in any given time to 30 and they are in groups of 10. So, we did need the support of the National Guard to help fill in that gap and help us continue our mission-critical operations.”

A handful of Guard members are working at the Kansas City location alongside Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization run by veterans. At the Topeka location, Guard members are working with Harvesters employees. Both teams are packing boxes with cereal, canned vegetables and fruit that is distributed to Harvesters’ community partners. The Kansas City location also has a USDA-certified clean room used for repacking bulk products into consumer-sized packaging for distribution.

“There are Kansans out there who have lost their jobs and one of the main things they need in a time like this is food,” said Cpl. Krista Smith, 731st Composite Truck Company. “When you sign up to join the National Guard, you are not only serving your country, but you’re serving Kansas and your community – and this is one of the main ways we do it.”

Guard members have also had a hand in distribution, operating forklifts to pack shipping trucks and going out with those trucks to community food donation sites to hand out packages.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the military, to serve my community and my nation,” said Tech. Sgt. Lyle Johnson, 190th Air Refueling Wing. “This mission lets the community know that we are here to help them. There have been some Guard members who have gone out on deliveries and that increases our visibility.”

As the needs of Kansans continue to evolve, the Kansas Guard stands ready to meet those needs.

“I just want to say that we are really appreciative of the support of the National Guard,” said Steve Davis. “This is obviously an unprecedented time in that none of us have been through before, and so we just appreciate the support of the National Guard in helping us continue this really important mission.”

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