Friday, August 8, 2014

Hunger in the Heartland: How a Record-Breaking Spaghetti Dinner Could Help Nebraska's Most Needy

by Nomad

Omaha spaghetti fundraiser in September hopes to bring the community together to break records for a good cause. 

Ms. Lin Leahy is a woman with a mission. 
Three missions in fact. 
The first mission?
This 54-year-old professional chef in Omaha, Nebraska has gathered together her friends, neighbors and co-workers in order to break the Guinness World Record. 
Well, with 3,780 pounds of pasta, 4,000 pounds of meatballs, Leahy aims to set the record for the most people served in one meal. That means, by serving more than 17,000 persons.
But it's much more than just a publicity stunt.

More than a Pretty Plate
With a board of directors made up of volunteers, Leahy's non-profit tax-exempt organization the Power of O.NE will also attempt to raise $100,000 for the Food Bank for the Heartland

But then, it's not just about the money. 

Her third goal is more far-reaching. The organization wants to raise awareness of food insecurities and also to remind people that a sense of community is formed when neighbor helps neighbor.

So, on Sept. 21, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., she plans to serve 20,000 plates of pasta, sauce, meatballs and green beans for $5 each at various local locations. Nobody will leave hungry, even if they can't pay. They hope people who can afford it will give more.

So far, the group has found donors for all the food. The volunteers have reached out to area high schools and secured 13 serving sites in every corner of the metropolitan area. They estimate they’ll need 500 volunteers, and several groups already are interested in helping.
Brian Barks, director of development and communications for the Food Bank was a bit skeptical at first. However, he told the reporter that the enthusiasm was "extremely infectious,” Director Barks listened to the idea proposed by Leahy's group and offered to help with whatever it needs to make this dream come true.

According to its website. the Food Bank of the Heartland distributes food to approximately 285 nonprofit organizations in Nebraska and western Iowa. This includes pantries, emergency shelters, meal providers and rehabilitation centers.

Those organizations then distribute the food to the needy. 

In addition, programs like Mobile Pantry, Kids Cafe and BackPack allow the Food Bank to distribute food directly to children, families and seniors who are at-risk of hunger.

Facts and Numbers 
The facts about hunger in Nebraska are sobering:
  • Approximately 20 percent of children in Nebraska and western Iowa are at-risk for hunger.
  • Douglas County has the most children at-risk for hunger (24,640) followed by Sarpy County (7,150) in Nebraska.
  • Woodbury County has the most children at-risk for hunger (5,830) followed by Pottawattamie County (4,440) in Iowa.
  • 15.9 percent of Nebraskans reported at least one time in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food that they or their family needed.
  • 52 percent of clients served by Food Bank for the Heartland report having to choose between paying for food and utilities.
  • 76 percent of clients have incomes below the federal poverty line.
  • 19 percent of clients are homeless.
So there's no question about a need in Nebraska.

On Being Blessed
Ms. Leahy is the corporate executive chef for Dial Retirement Communities which is "one of the Midwest's premier providers of management and consulting services to senior adult living communities." 
Leahy obtained her formal culinary education with a background in Food Services at the Institute of Culinary Arts, Metropolitan Community College, Omaha, Nebraska.

Moreover, she's no stranger to spaghetti fundraisers. Over the years she has produced many but, of course, nothing on this scale.

The article relates how Leahy had a kind of small epiphany. After beating cancer nearly twenty years ago, she has always felt she had a need to give something back. 

"I am, "she told the reporter, "very blessed." 

For some people being blessed isn't seen as something to brag about or to be smug about. For some people, like Leahy, it is a call to duty. Being blessed means returning that blessing back to others. (That's true of people and nations alike.)
“I was listening to a story about hunger on NPR and how we really have all the resources right now to feed everyone,” she said. A little bit later, she followed a truck with a “Feed the Children” banner, and then heard about a small town fundraiser that involved nearly every resident.
It came to her: What if an army of Omahans duplicated that small-town spirit to make sure that on one day, nobody went hungry?
But the next step in the progression was crucial.
Somebody should do this, and I’m that somebody, she thought, though she tried to ignore that notion, “as a normal person would,” she said.
Eventually she decided it was time to put her theoretical altruism into concrete action. On a large scale.

All about Community
The article explains that this isn't Leahy's personal vanity project. And it isn't all about one person's dream. It's about a community coming together to do good things. 
Of course, it's hard to see how the project could have come together without one person taking that first step.

When Leahy threw a party for her closest friends to propose the idea, she became an organizer of good people too. Now her group of about 40 planners meets each Monday night.
Even that wasn't enough for a project like this. 
Corporations- as people or not- are also part of our community, so the organizers 
 went to corporations like Hormel Meats and Cash-Wa distributing company to ask for their help too. The executives also decided to participate by donating food and services. 
The question of venue was solved when representatives for all seven Omaha district high schools agreed to host the fundraising event.

She even recruited her own boss at Dial Corp. to handle logistics. In addition, several of the company chefs agreed to volunteer their time in chare of the serving sites.
Marketing and advertising is being handled by a  group of University of Nebraska at Omaha marketing students  

There is, Leahy said, one final piece left: Finding enough volunteers to help make things run smoothly. That's where the real community spirit will be on full display. 
Leahy isn't worried about that. She explained:
Church groups and civic clubs have expressed interest, and students at some of the high schools probably need service hours.
This month will be all about putting the elements together and handling the last minute hitches that are bound to arise.  

If all goes right- and, given the enthusiasm, there's no reason not to think it will- Leahy expects to see hundreds of people from different Omaha neighborhoods coming to share the dinner. Nothing could make her happier.
She told the Omaha reporter:
“It started with a small-town mentality. They really take care of each other,” she said. “Omaha’s just an overgrown cowtown. We can do this.”
We wish her the best of luck. 

Buon Appetito, Omaha!