Full Tummy Happy Heart

A lot of volunteers come together to make feeding families in Dakota County possible. The story of those volunteers is an important one to tell because they have made an impactful difference, providing thousands of pounds of produce for families in need. The story of the volunteer can easily be celebrated in numbers and data, but detailing the story of a rock painting fundraiser last summer to raise money to feed families does more to celebrate their hard work than any numbers ever could.  

The fundraiser, painted rocks by local artists, was organized by yet another community volunteer. A young 11-year-old boy asked if he could paint a rock. He wanted to help raise funds to feed kids that are hungry. A young boy, who once often did without, said “I know what it’s like to go to bed hungry. I know what its like to have my tummy hurt because I had no food. I want to help make sure that no other kids ever have their tummies hurt because they had to go without food.” He painted a rock with a smiley face with the words “Full Tummy Happy Heart”. There is not a number big enough that tells the story better than that!

The volunteers in Dakota County Voices for Food project are filling tummies and creating happy hearts. The Voices for Food project (VFF) started in 2015 to connect community stakeholders and bring community members together to address food insecurity at the community level. The community effort that works to make a better food system for everyone has blossomed under the kindness and giving spirit of its volunteers. Dakota County leads the state in produce production and volunteer hours in the Growing Together project. In fact, Dakota County provides almost half of the produce recorded for the whole state as part of the Growing Together Nebraska project. Five master gardeners and over 131 volunteers provided over 1,600 hours of community service last summer to help feed families. It is the volunteers whose kindness and servanthood make the Voices for Food project the success that it is. 

One of those volunteers is Master Gardener Marion Cain. Marion oversees the Cooperative Learning Garden that last year supplied 12,000 of the 17,000 pounds of produce provided to feed hungry families in Dakota County. She is the heartbeat of produce program. Marion spends countless hours working a crew of gardeners that plant, harvest and deliver produce to food pantries every week. There are 12-15 garden volunteers who work hours behind the scenes, to have produce show up at each pantry site. When these ladies get together, it is their “girl time”. Some people get together for coffee or quilting, these ladies get together to connect with each other, serve a greater good and give back. 

Marion herself spends over 75 hours a month volunteering, making food available to hungry families. This produce has changed the look of the food pantry, from processed packed foods to having fresh foods available for families who might not otherwise afford fresh produce at the grocery store. What do family members say about this project? 

“As a person on fixed income, I want to thank you very much for the produce at today’s pantry.” 

“This program has certainly helped me feed my family in the summer.” 

Another volunteer in the Voices for Food program, is Bill Garvey. Bill has been instrumental in getting this program off the ground. From securing funding to connecting VFF with resources, Bill spends a lot of time doing what is needed. In the face of a pandemic, Bill Garvey, also a VFF team member, stepped in to provide food boxes for families in need. He helped secure funds, ordered food supply, packed boxes, kept track of funding, and connected us with agencies in need. There were 1,449 boxes packed and distributed to sick and unemployed family members during the national shut down. Even though this was a concerning time, as Bill has family with risk factors and the unknown things about what was going on made him take pause, he only paused for a moment. Nothing holds Bill back. He was out volunteering 20 hours a week, taking precautions including wearing his mask and gloves, but still meeting the needs of his community. That is who Bill is.

All our core team members, gardeners, and business volunteers in the Voices for Food project put in countless work and volunteer time to make this program a success. Everyone is just willing to step up to the plate. In the middle of a pandemic when food needed to be delivered, team member Sandy Nation received the call. We needed to get food to the health center, as many families were testing positive and being quarantined, and they would be unable to leave their homes. She did not hesitate to put on a mask and help deliver food. She said, “Who else is going to do it”. Other team members, Jill and Wayne Long, coordinate and build raised beds for community agencies, helping move food from the garden to the pantry, and coordinate marketing of the program in the community. All of this by volunteers. 

There are too many volunteers, too many community businesses to name, that step in and help when we need them. This is the very heart of Voices for Food, a community coming together, and out of the kindness of their hearts, making a better food system for everyone. 

John Bunyan said it best, “You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you”. While an 11-year-old boy gives the best description of reducing food insecurity, of his full tummy creating a happy heart, it might just be the volunteers who have the happiest heart of them all. 

By Brenda Sale

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