Omaha-based ConAgra Foods is taking a corporate bottom-line approach to solving a persistent social problem with a new $4 million campaign it says can lift 3,000 local children out of hunger.
The three-year program, which will be announced this morning during breakfast service at Kellom Elementary School in north Omaha, aims to reach beyond simply handing out free meals to a more comprehensive effort to connect school food programs, pantries, food stamp enrollment services and financial literacy classes.
“It takes more than food to fight hunger,” said ConAgra chief executive officer Gary Rodkin, who will be at Kellom to launch the program.
The ConAgra Foods Foundation has focused on child hunger for 20 years, giving away some $60 million toward the cause nationally, including through the local Shine the Light on Hunger holiday campaign. But Rodkin wanted to do more, said Kori Reed, foundation vice president.
The Omaha World-Herald’s 2007 series on poverty drew attention to the fact that hunger persisted right in the backyard of the firm, which today has $15.5 billion in annual sales. That led to ConAgra’s anti-hunger tagline, “Child Hunger Ends Here,” and new local efforts.
But the foundation found that its work wasn’t producing any measurable improvement in child hunger data.
Reed said the primary measure of hunger is a USDA survey on food security. It shows approximately 32,000 of the 180,000 children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties live in households that experience “food insecurity,” as measured by answers to several questions on a household survey. Supporting free meal programs for children doesn’t do much to budge the numbers for whole households, Reed said.
So ConAgra looked for a different approach, looking for measurable results, while understanding it was unrealistic to see the kind of quarterly improvement the corporation would look for in profits. The first goal is to reduce by 10 percent the number of children in food-insecure households.
“Social change can take time,” Reed said. “What we’re trying to do, really, is build a system.”
Reed feels the pressure to succeed, though. In her office is a nearly life-sized cardboard cutout of Rodkin, wearing an orange suit (the color of the anti-hunger campaign) and holding a sign that says, “Kori, BE BOLD.”
When he sees her in the hallways of ConAgra’s riverfront campus, Reed said the CEO asks her, “Have you ended hunger yet? When are you going to end hunger?”
ConAgra has now researched the issue as thoroughly as it researches the market for its food products, and has joined with local hunger-fighting coalition Hunger Free Heartland on the larger effort.
At Kellom, ConAgra will launch the effort with an expansion of its support of the Omaha Public Schools’ breakfast program. ConAgra will offer one-time grants to individual schools that switch from a traditional cafeteria breakfast service program to the newer “Grab-N-Go” program where students pick up a bagged hot or cold breakfast on their way to the classroom. Each school that switches will receive $20 per student to use on wellness initiatives.
Grab-N-Go is already in 22 of the approximately 90 Omaha public schools, and district nutrition services director Tammy Yarmon said those schools have seen breakfast participation rates increase. The district went from feeding about 7,000 students breakfast to about 20,000. Those schools also see less tardiness and fewer students complaining of stomachaches.
Yarmon said more students participate because there is less stigma associated with eating breakfast in the classroom in the few minutes before class starts than with coming to school early to eat in the cafeteria.
If all Omaha schools decided to switch to Grab-N-Go, it would earn them a total of about $750,000 in grants from ConAgra, Yarmon estimated.
Beyond expanding breakfast service, ConAgra’s $4 million program also will support the Food Bank for the Heartland to increase the number of after-school and summer feeding sites and to help more eligible families enroll in SNAP, the federal food stamp program.
ConAgra will also expand Creighton University’s Financial Hope Collaborative, a financial literacy program for low-income single mothers. And its grants will help the three largest local food pantries coordinate their services so they can be more efficient in connecting clients with food, job services and medical care.
The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition will measure the impact the program has on reducing child hunger in the metro area.
Hunger Free Heartland director Steph Montgomery-Loder called the collaboration unusual and said she hopes it will become a model for other communities.
“There is always going to be a place, sadly, for emergency food in our culture,” she said. “But the food bank delivers more and more food every year, and when you think about that, at what point do we focus on shortening the line of people that need food as opposed to just continuing to feed that line of people?”