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Not In My Backyard

Peggy Halderman shares her journey of ensuring children in America have food.

Peggy HaldermanPeggy Halderman is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in being a Rotarian.

I came to learn about hunger by working with food. After I retired from the Park Service as an Assistant Regional Director for External Affairs in the Intermountain Region, I went back to school to learn to be a professional chef. After training with master chefs in both Italy and France, I completed my culinary studies at Cook Street in Denver and set up her personal chef business.

My next step was to sign up to volunteer with a local branch of the nonprofit “Cooking Matters.” It was there that I met a former chef from a local restaurant, Andy Nowak. It was through Andy that I began to learn about hidden childhood hunger and the need for weekend “kid food.” He explained that he and his wife put together backpacks with enough food for one kid for a weekend. The thought of kids without food jarred me, and that’s when I began to explore in more depth the hidden epidemic of childhood hunger.

This weighed on my heart, and I asked Andy where I could learn more about it. That’s how I met Kathy Underhill, who managed a local food bank. She invited me to shadow her over time, and I learned quickly the importance of partnerships, especially with the faith community and school personnel. Very quickly, she taught me the basic formulae associated with how to determine the level of need within a school or community. Then, as an educational exercise, I gathered the data about the upper-middle class city of Golden, Colorado, only to learn that we had almost 450 children who had no food on the weekend.

Shocked and outraged, I said, “Not in my backyard. Not in America!” I took my findings to the board of my Rotary Club of Golden. Everyone on the board was shocked by the numbers, and gave me the challenge of “fixing” it. I explained that I didn’t know how much it would cost, and the Board said that they would write the check; my job was to “fix it.” As I began to think about how to approach it, I shared the numbers with people throughout the City. No one knew about these numbers or what it meant. Within several weeks I decided to try a pilot project with a school where the Rotary Club had strong relationships, Bell Middle School. But it was at the end of the school year, so we decided to do some planning over the summer. And then fate intervened. Because of an accident, I ended up with a bad compound fracture and was confined to a wheel chair for four months, critical months during which I had to complete the project planning. Because I had to approach the project differently while in a wheelchair, I finalized the operation plan of working through our nonprofit arm, the Golden Rotary Foundation, to develop a relationship with the Food Bank of the Rockies. My next step was to find a warehouse to store the provisions. With one phone call to the Developmental Disabilities Resource Center, I found a partner organization that would pick up my ordered food, fill the sacks of food, and deliver the sacks to the schools. Through this arrangement, we were able to expand easily as the program grew.

So, as we served 65 kids in our pilot, the community heard about what we were trying to do and wanted information and wanted to help. As the program grew to meet the needs all of the schools in Golden, a call came from the Golden Police Department. They explained that they had so many calls from a Jefferson County “Options School” that they finally figured out all the problems were associated with hunger. They asked if we could help. Of course, with our community, we met the needs quickly. Once we provided food, attendance went up, disciplinary problems diminished, and we once again witnessed the amazing difference that full tummies can make.

Two more individuals learned about our program. One was a businessman who remembered his hungry childhood when he had white bread, Crisco, and sugar for dinner. He decided to not only help cover the food costs but also to make sure that these children, who were without food, would each have a Christmas stocking. This program continues to this day. Yet one more person stepped forward with a blank check, asking how she could help. With a “blank check,” I decided to test whether feeding kids makes a difference in how a child learns. Working with principals at two local elementary schools, I asked: Once we feed the kids AND we give each a book of his/her own, does it make a difference? The answer after five months of the program was a resounding: YES! From a regular elementary school, the principal cited many anecdotes of positive activity. From the Title I elementary school, the data were even more telling: With five months' worth of books, the children of the title I school increase their reading ability on average of two levels! Granted, generally the children were not reading at grade level, but they are making strides in the right direction!

So, we are in our fifth year, and I asked the Golden community a question: What should we do in our next five years? The community was very clear: We love what the Golden Backpack Program does for the kids during the school year. Now, do it year-round. And within 24 short hours, I received a donation of a half-size “beer bus” that we could convert into a mobile food pantry. Then it was back to a wonderful community team to figure out how to feed kids weekday lunches. Chiefly among them were Deacon Bethany Thomas, Dan Thoemke, Judy Maxwell, Reagan Giffels, and the Food Bank of the Rockies. We laid out the summer program quickly, including this “beer bus” that we needed to figure out how to convert into a mobile food pantry.

Then, as fate would have it, the Golden Backpack Program became one of 177 projects accepted by the Walmart Foundation for participation in the 2013 Walmart Foundation “Fighting Hunger Together” campaign. If our program garners enough votes, we will win $20k in time to complete the conversation of “the beer bus” into our Snack-n-Wagon (yes, our mobile food pantry) and we begin feeding kids this July 1, 2013!

So, where does all this end? When there are no hungry children in our community. It is so important that our kids have the right food, for without food these children – our future – will not have a chance to be all that each one of them can be. It’s as simple as that. And, believe it or not, it is doable!

Peggy Halderman is the creator of the Golden Backpack Program (GBP).