Meals of Hope, a local food packing and pantry organization, has several events planned for Hunger Action Month to raise awareness and support of its mission to “inspire and empower communities to come together to end hunger.”
Guinness World Record Cereal Box Challenge
On Saturday, September 1, Meals of Hope will attempt to beat a Guinness World Record of the “most cereal boxes toppled in a domino fashion” by stacking a trail of 4,000 boxes. The 4,000 number is significant for two reasons. First, it breaks the current record of 3,416 boxes held by students and staff at H. Frank Carey High School in New York. The record previously was held by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The number also represents the number of families Meals of Hope serves at its food pantries each month.
The event will take place at Grow Church, 15300 Tamiami Trail North, in Naples. Under the supervision of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, at-risk children will use the opportunity as a community service project and assist Meals of Hope with arranging the cereal boxes. After the event, the cereal will be distributed to all Meals of Hope food pantries.
Revisiting Hurricane Irma
Nearly a year after Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida on September 10, 2017, Meals of Hope still provides services to families whose homes were damaged and individuals who lost jobs and need additional support services.
In the eight months prior to Irma, Meals of Hope distributed 700,000 pounds of food through its pantries. In the six weeks after the storm, 850,000 pounds were distributed, and the organization ended the year having distributed 2.2 million pounds of food locally. Prior to Irma, food was distributed at three locations, and for six weeks afterward, 45 different distribution locations were used (and many still receive services today).
In addition to distributing food, water and hot meals after Irma (including 4,000 lunches a week to Everglades City), Meals of Hope also provided basic necessities such as diapers, feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products, and cleaning supplies.
“There was a real collaborative effort to help our community,” said Stephen Popper, president/CEO of Meals of Hope. “We staged water throughout North Collier County Fire District before the storm hit, and within 24 hours of the storm passing, we were distributing food and water. We held a food pantry in front of our office the day after the hurricane hit.”
Meals of Hope also was impacted by the storm. The organization lost power for 17 days and had $120,000 worth of building damage. Some employees could not get to work because of road conditions, electrical outages and gas shortages, but others on the team worked additional hours to ensure community needs were met.
A Full-Circle Milestone
Meals of Hope held its first packing event at Naples High School in 2007, where 500 people packed 135,000 meals. Eleven years later, Naples High School will host another chapter in Meals of Hope history when the Student Government Association packs the 50,000,000th meal on September 7.
Stephen Popper started Meals of Hope after his mother heard of school children in Haiti having difficulty learning because they did not have enough food. She knew of a food packing program in the Midwest and wanted to know if her son would ship the food if she found a way to collect it.
Popper realized there wasn’t a food packing program in Southwest Florida to help local needy families, so he started doing research and working with food supply manufacturers. He contacted the Rotary Club of Naples, which offered to be part of the food packing process as a community service project. He looked at the Naples High School cafeteria and began inviting people around the community. He sent 8,000 of the packed meals to Haiti and worked with the Harry Chapin Food Bank to distribute the remaining meals.
“The feeling was so empowering,” Popper said. “Just watching all of these people getting together for fellowship and packing meals. I made a commitment to pack one million meals that year. Now we’re hitting our 50th million meal. We are very blessed to be able to help the hunger epidemic to this degree.”
After that first packing event, Popper began to research what types of food would provide the most nutrition. He created a Beans and Rice packed meal with added soy protein. He then created a Macaroni and Cheese Meal, fortified with 21 vitamins and minerals, that beat a more recognizable brand in blind taste tests.
“It was like hitting a home run,” Popper said. “The meals were so well received. Over the years we have developed four different meals – the Beans and Rice Casserole; Fortified Macaroni and Cheese; Fortified Pasta with Tomato Sauce; and a Fortified Cinnamon Sugar, Diced Apple Oatmeal. We actually had someone tell us he can’t find a macaroni and cheese in stores that is as good as ours.”
Food Stamp Challenge
Meals of Hope is looking for community leaders to participate in a Food Stamp Challenge the last weekend of Hunger Action Month.
The Food Stamp Challenge is designed to replicate what many children experience every weekend, when Friday lunch is their last complete meal until they return to school Monday morning. Many teachers do not test students on Mondays, as they know students are not able to work at their best because of their lack of food during the weekend.
The maximum monthly allotment for SNAP benefits is $192 per person, which equals $2.13 per meal. The challenge begins with dinner on Friday, Sept. 28, and ends with dinner on Sunday, Sept. 30, for seven meals total. Community leaders will be asked to spend $14.93 for the weekend on groceries for those seven meals and document their experience to raise hunger awareness in Southwest Florida.
For more information about the Food Stamp Challenge or other Hunger Action Month activities, please contact Stephen Popper or Brandon Dowdy, Meals of Hope director of development, at (239) 537-7775.
About Meals of Hope
Meals of Hope, which feeds approximately 1,000 needy families per week at 11 food pantries and packed over 8.2 million meals in 2017, is the only food packing organization with a priority on keeping that food within the United States. More than 20,000 volunteers and nine full-time staff members assist Meals of Hope in achieving its mission to “inspire and empower communities to come together to end hunger.”