Agency feeds a hungry community, and the need will last

By Mike Genet

The need was unprecedented most 2020, and while there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Doug Cowan doesn’t foresee the need slackening much going into 2021.

The president and CEO of the Community Services League estimates that his organization distributed enough boxes of food for 4 million meals for Eastern Jackson County families since the pandemic took off in the U.S. in mid-March.

Nowlin Middle School students in Independence collected and packed boxes of donated food items to deliver to the Community Services League in December. CSL distributed more than 4 million meals worth of food in 2020, more than double its normal distribution. [Photo courtesy of the Community Services League]

While that total was greatly augmented by several distribution days with the “Farmers to Families” program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s still more than double what CSL would normally distribute in a year. 

“The volume never really slowed down for us, as families continued to struggle,” Cowan said. “We couldn’t have done it without Harvesters, which provides a major conduit, and organizations that used to do big collection barrels for us did drive-thru collections.”

“Whether contributions were big and small, they were important. One thing we all agreed on was people were struggling, and people here rallied to help people.”

Cowan said CSL will continue its Saturday drive-through pantries through January, with distribution events on Jan. 9 and 23. However, instead of using CSL’s main office on Noland Road in Independence, it will use the Community of Christ Auditorium south parking lot off Pacific Avenue, as it did for the final December distribution and for “Farmers to Families” distributions, to accommodate longer traffic lines.

“We were beginning to cause a bit of a problem with our neighbors on 24 Highway and Noland Road,” Cowan said. “The line sometimes went back toward the Truman Library.”

“Which in one respect shows the need, but it’s clear that caused traffic problems.”

With goods from the “Farmers” program, citizens in need had access to some produce and milk that they normally might not have with CSL.

“That was a big thing in 2020,” Cowan said. “The food pantry box has traditionally been canned and boxes items, so having access to fresh produce and fresh milk was good. We got great feedback from families on that.”

The “Farmers” program expired at the end of 2020, though the federal government could fund it some again in 2021. Regardless, all the various food contributions have allowed CSL to generally keep up with requests around Eastern Jackson County.

Cowan also was thrilled that donors to CSL reached the $100,000 goal for their Christmas Matching Challenge, triggering a matching grant from anonymous donors to provide funds for CSL’s various services even beyond food, like housing assistance, job training and financial planning.

“It’s been really exciting,” Cowan said of the matching challenge. “We had a flurry of activity this week. If there was any year to make sure we hit it, it’s clearly 2020, and I think donors clearly understood the need.”

“This is what keeps our services rolling. People are understanding that families are still struggling, and a lot of people increased their giving. The outpouring of generosity in our community never ceases to amaze me. We try to give donors a pathway to show their support, and what it all boils down to is caring for people.”