The Food Bank In Kansas That Offers More Than Meals

By Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Dwight Hilpman

After Christmas one year, a food bank in Lawrence, Kansas, received an unexpected phone call. Local trash collectors reported finding frozen turkeys, the ones placed in holiday food baskets, tossed in the trash.

The food bank, Just Food, surveyed their clients to find out why. It turned out that there wasn’t one answer, but many:

Some clients didn’t have big enough ovens or ovens at all. Some didn’t know how to thaw a frozen turkey. Others didn’t have refrigerators or pans that were big enough to roast turkeys.

Food wasn’t the problem here. Cooking it was. 

In 2016, nearly 17 percent of Douglas County residents needed food assistance. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Working with a local chef, Rick Martin, Just Food developed a program called “Just Cook.” Chef Martin was ideally suited to create the program. He grew up in a low-income family and often prepared meals when his mother worked late. She taught him what he now teaches clients: how to make a healthy meal with inexpensive yet nutritious ingredients.

Just Food clients can enroll in their cooking classes, free of charge. And, if they want to grow their own food, they can lease a garden plot outside the pantry at no cost as well. That program, “Just Grow,” matches a master gardener with clients to plan a successful garden. 

One program often leads to another, and after setting up the first garden plots, Just Food found land across the river in North Lawrence to set up what Elizabeth Keever, the executive director of the nonprofit, calls an “incubator farm” on an acre of land. Clients who want to farm for a living can start here. Last year one particular client enjoyed such a successful year at the Farmer’s Market that “for next year,” Keever said, “he’s signed a contract with a local restaurant to be the sole grower for the products that they like.”

Just Food is a volunteer-based nonprofit, funded almost entirely by local donations. Last year, 700 volunteers donated 18,000 hours. Keever’s small staff of four paid employees is the engine behind their success. “The role of the paid staff is to figure out how to leverage manpower,” she said. One person brings in volunteers. Another focuses on food acquisition. Just Food increased their donated food by over 400 percent when a paid staff member was hired to oversee that program.

Working with farmers and local groceries, Just Food has used a successful food recovery program to collect and quickly distribute fresh food to their clients. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Much of this food is collected through a food recovery program. “It’s widely known,” Keever said, “that nationwide, 40 percent of food is thrown away.” It’s tossed out by grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and farms. Just Food works with local businesses to explain how long food is good, even when it’s past the “sell-by” date. That food is now being donated to Just Food, upwards of 2,500 pounds a day. 

Because of its small size, Just Food can quickly turn around the food, meaning their clients can shop for fresh produce, whole-grain breads, milk, and meat most days of the week. And next to these products, shoppers may find fruits and vegetables donated by local farms. “A farmer down the road has my cell phone number,” Keever said, “and will call me if his sweet potatoes need to be picked.”

When Just Food formed, less than ten years ago, it had a singular goal of collecting and distributing food to low-income residents in Douglas County, which is home to family farms, small communities and the sprawling campus of the University of Kansas. Out of this diversity—both of needs and community support—Just Food has become a local hub of ideas on how to fight hunger through education, better access to nutritious food, and work opportunities. Their growth hasn’t been without setbacks. One appeared in 2016, and not from a food-related problem.

A former director, Jeremy Farmer, was charged that year with embezzling funds from Just Food; he was later convicted and sentenced. Just Food fought to recover from this blow, to raise funds to cover their losses and rebuild the community’s trust. 

Executive Director Elizabeth Keever and a staff member check inventory of kitchen equipment. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Through it all, Chef Martin has remained a loyal supporter of Just Food. Since he first developed Just Cook in 2012, he has trained teachers and occasionally teaches a course himself. At Thanksgiving, he shows clients how to cook the ingredients in their holiday food boxes—including that frozen turkey.

Lately, Martin has found a new point of intersection between the goals of Just Food and the needs of local restaurants, one of which is his award-winning Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar. Working in a university town, restaurant owners struggle with training and keeping employees, many of whom are students.

“Rick came to us with an idea,” said Keever. “He said, ‘I bet you have a lot of people that you serve who need a second chance at a career.’” A new program called KitchenWorks emerged. Now in its pilot phase, the five-day program trains people to get jobs in the culinary industry. Students receive a certificate of employment eligibility at the end of the course. Two students in the first class found jobs in local restaurants.

Students in Chef Martin’s class taste food they prepared. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

On a rainy fall afternoon, Chef Martin met with students in the second class. “Coming through!” one student shouted, using the heads-up term to alert others that he was moving across the kitchen. The students were learning how to brown meat that day. “Nicely done!” Chef Martin said to Len Wright, admiring the caramelized crust he’d created on the pork chop, still sizzling in the skillet.

“You can see the rewards,” Wright said of his cooking, adding that he’s always enjoyed cooking for his friends and family. “Now I can take my skills into the community.”

This is what food justice looks like in Lawrence, Kansas. “We don’t want to just feed the line,” explained Keever. “We want to end it.”


Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize. She recently launched a blog inspired by letters her grandfather wrote home 100 years ago, during his service in World War 1:

Dwight Hilpman of Creative Images Photography has been capturing beautiful images with clarity, precision and an artistic touch in Lawrence, Kansas for the last 30 years. 
Cover photo: Chef Rick Martin provides tips on plating to a culinary student. By Dwight Hilpman.

Copyright © 500 Pens. January 2018

For Homeless Children, Lessons In Stability

Story by Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Gina Long

Every Wednesday, Lisa Rodriguez drives to a homeless shelter to tutor *Alma. When the weather’s nice, they sit outside on the wide front porch. “She likes to do science projects, so it’s perfect to be outdoors.”

Rodriguez is a tutor for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit School on Wheels. She’s one of roughly two thousand volunteers working with a nearly invisible population: children growing up homeless.

“These children are at an unimaginable disadvantage,” said Catherine Meek, executive director of School on Wheels. “Their families may move two or three times a year, uprooting the children, causing gaps in their learning.” School on Wheels removes barriers that keep these children out of school — tracking down lost records needed to enroll, filling backpacks with school supplies, and providing weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions.

The shelter where *Alma is tutored. Photo by Gina Long.

Volunteer tutors are at the heart of their program. Rigorously screened, they agree to a minimum one-year commitment. School on Wheels then matches them with a student, based on the volunteer’s skills and the needs of the student. “We know the better the match,” said  Meek, “the greater the long-term success.”

Mona Tse, another School on Wheels volunteer, has tutored 15-year-old *Martin for two years. Once a week, she leaves work and walks to the public library down the street.

“Mona helps me in stuff I need help in,” Martin said of his tutor. “She puts a lot of effort to help me strive.”

His school recommended the program to his mother as a way to keep him on track. His grades have improved with tutoring and he’s found acceptance at school. “I was just elected to the Associated Student Body,” he said. “I get to set up fun activities like pep rallies and dances.”

Mona Tse works with *Martin at a local public library. Photo by Gina Long.

This family had a specific need. “We didn’t have the internet,” Martin’s mother explained. They came to the library for a connection but still couldn’t keep up. “If you missed an online assignment or teacher report, you might slip behind by weeks.”

“Teachers assume you have electronics,” Martin said. “And if you tell them you don’t have them, they don’t believe you.”

For homeless families, acquiring the materials and skills to succeed in a digital learning environment is crucial for a child’s success. Many schools, like the one Martin attends, are setting aside textbooks, with their printed examples and worksheets, in favor of homework posted online. With Tse’s help, the family has become savvy with technology. “Mona has helped us stay on track. I’m so grateful for that,” said Martin’s mother.

Tse admitted her good luck being matched with Martin, who comes every week, eager to learn. She had volunteered before, she said, in high school and college, but had taken a break to establish her career. “I was itching to get back into the community,” she said. “I know I can only do so much, but having this impact on the community to help people, that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Last year, School on Wheels sent their volunteers to libraries and shelters and public places to tutor more than three thousand students across Southern California. But this effort is only part of a solution to a mounting emergency in this region, where rising rents and stagnant incomes are driving more people from their homes.

Tutor Lisa Rodriguez sets up a science experiment. Photo by Gina Long.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which records yearly changes in the homeless population, found a 23 percent increase in 2016. And in the San Gabriel Valley, where Alma lives, that number soared to 31 percent. Within those numbers, a startling one reveals a 41 percent increase in homeless children under the age of 18.

National studies have shown these children are likely to fall behind in school, underperform their peers, and likely drop out before completing high school. “That’s why we work so hard to keep them in school,” said Meek. But, she admitted, it’s hard to quantify the success of School on Wheels. “We’re working with such a transient community, with children of all ages and abilities. It’s hard to establish a baseline and then measure outcome.”

They rely, in part, on anecdotes, including this one. Meek agreed to tutor a little girl at a shelter. When she arrived the first time, she found the girl hiding under a table. “So, I joined her there, on the floor, and we read together.” This happened for many weeks. One day, the girl was sitting on a chair at the table, waiting for her tutor. “I call that a success.”

Angela Sanchez is a “graduate” of School on Wheels who went on to earn two degrees from UCLA. Photo courtesy of Angela Sanchez.

And so is the story of Angela Sanchez. During high school, her father lost his job and the two became homeless. Angela was struggling with calculus. She knew she had to pass the course to graduate. One of the shelters where they lived recommended School on Wheels, which matched her with a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Yes, a rocket scientist!” Meek said. Angela passed calculus, was admitted to UCLA, and went on to earn two degrees from there. She founded the campus chapter of School on Wheels and now writes a blog about “homelessness, higher education and hope” called Poverty to Professional.

It’s not unusual for former students to become tutors for School on Wheels, or even join their board. Their firsthand knowledge of homelessness and poverty inspires them to help. For volunteers like Rodriguez, the hardships of her childhood played a part in her decision to tutor.

“I thought back on the people who helped me when I was little,” she said, “and I decided tutoring in my community was the right thing to do. I’ve found my purpose in Alma. I mean, a little Latina who likes science! How can I not want to spend my Wednesday evenings with her?”

*Names of children have been changed to protect their privacy.


Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize.

Gina Long believes photography is more about “translation than creation.” She’s been shooting for over 25 years and began her career with Court TV and, later, served as the Missing Child Producer at “America’s Most Wanted.” Long also produced broadcast documentary programs for Discovery Network and CBS. Today, she is the owner of The Unexpected Portrait in Southern California.

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.