Fighting hunger in Lincoln: Good not good enough

Photo, video and text by Allan Christensen, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraska calls itself the “good life.” Most people in Lincoln can attest to that claim. As of September 2016, the unemployment rate in Lincoln was down to 2.9 percent. The capital city continues to grow as the Silicon Prairie booms downtown and high-rises spring from the ground. Lincoln is in many ways doing well.  But for all those thriving in Lincoln there are still those who struggle.  There are those who wake up hungry and go to sleep hungry.  According to Feeding America, one in eight Nebraskans are food insecure, that is they don’t know from where their next meal will come.  A Feeding America report in 2015 said more than 97,000 children statewide are going hungry.  That’s roughly one in five children across Nebraska.

Lincoln is in many ways doing well.  But for all those thriving in Lincoln there are still those who struggle.  There are those who wake up hungry and go to sleep hungry.  According to Feeding America, one in eight Nebraskans are food insecure, that is they don’t know from where their next meal will come.  A Feeding America report in 2015 said more than 97,000 children statewide are going hungry.  That’s roughly one in five children across Nebraska.

For one couple in Lincoln, good just isn’t good enough.

The Akridges

Ben and Michaela Akridge started simply, as volunteers for their church’s vacation bible school. The Akridges went with the vacation bible school as they went to different neighborhoods around the city. For Michaela, a stark reality set in.

“What we were noticing is that come 5:00, 6:00 in the evening, kids were coming to V.B.S. and they hadn’t had breakfast, they hadn’t had lunch and here comes dinnertime approaching and they were going to be with us all evening,” Akridge said. “So where did they anticipate to get dinner?”

With that question in mind, Akridge took a modern approach to solve her problem. She started searching the internet. Inspiration struck close to home for Akridge, that is her old home back in Tennessee. The Hunger Stop Cafe, a project funded by the Tipton County Schools in Tennessee and the Department of Human Services, went into operation in June 2016 uses a refurbished school bus to bring lunches to kids in its area.

Armed with a plan the Akridges went about trying to make their idea come to fruition.

“(Hunger Stop Cafe) is completely state funded through the school system, so that’s what I looked into first,” Michaela Akridge said. “We didn’t feel we’d be able to accomplish what we were after if we went that route and so we thought, dream big. Okay, we’re going to attempt to be entirely privately funded.”

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Michaela Akridge takes food from the Food Fort to a home at the 13th and Saratoga stop. (Photo by Allan Christensen)

The Akridges sat down and planned what they would need and when they would need it, phase by phase. First came the bus. In the bus’s previous life it had been a Kansas City Chiefs tailgating party bus. It stuck out to the Akridges because it already had many of the renovations they were planning to do, already done to it. It seemed a sign that they were on the right path. A couple of donations and the bus was bought and brought from Iowa to Lincoln to begin its new life as the Food Fort.

The Need in the Star City

The Food Fort hits two locations. On Wednesdays, the bus parks at 13th and Saratoga and 20th and G streets on Sundays. The schools in both areas have some of Lincoln’s highest rates of free and reduced lunch. Students from Park Middle School, McPhee Elementary, Saratoga Elementary and Elliot Elementary are frequent visitors to the Food Fort. McPhee, located on Eighth and Goodhue, has the city’s second highest rate at over 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, per the Nebraska Department of Education. Elliot has just over 85 percent and Saratoga comes in at almost 80 percent in a county that averages just over 45 percent per the Department of Education’s statistics.

Lincoln has its fair share of food outreach programs. FoodNet, the BackPack Program, Matt Talbot Kitchen all cater to Lincolnites who struggle with hunger. According to Feeding America, households with children reported food insecurity at a higher rate than those without children. The Food Fort specifically emphasize those families.

“That’s why our main target is the kids,” Michaela Akridge said. “We realize there are other things offered here in Lincoln but we’re not trying to take people from utilizing those things.

When the Food Fort officially kicked off on October 16, the children were often running around outside playing. Getting the kids to come inside was a matter of earning the trust of the parents around and once that was earned the children stormed aboard. Now, with winter coming the Akridges and volunteers who join them on their stops often must go get the children from their homes in the neighborhood.

The two neighborhoods have very different make-ups. Saratoga is mostly made up of African-Americans and Latinos. The 13th and G neighborhood, just south of downtown Lincoln, has a large contingent of Karen. Karen is an ethnic group often found in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Thailand. The Burmese American Community Institute puts the number of Karen in the United States at about 65,000 as of July 2015.

A child at the 20th and G location digs into dessert in the Food Fort. (Photo by Allan Christensen)

A child at the 20th and G location digs into dessert in the Food Fort. (Photo by Allan Christensen)

“That’s still something we’re kind of working on,” Michaela Akridge said. “The Karen-speaking children are not used to a lot of the types of foods that we’re bringing in.”

‘More than a meal’

With the help of FoodNet, donations of food and money and a team of volunteers the Food Fort continues to consistently return to its neighborhoods. People like Adell Stiles, who is the head of Food Fort’s cooking team, and Evan and Emily Foster, who accompany the Akridges on their Sunday trips. Without their help the Akridges said they wouldn’t be able to keep up the consistency that they want. The Akridges repeatedly say that their mission is ‘more than a meal.’ It is a goal to use the food and consistent interaction to make a positive impact on children’s lives around the city. In the future, potentially as soon as the coming Summer, the Akridges said they hope to expand Food Fort’s scope. For now, it will stay as the two neighborhoods but Ben Akridge is undeterred.

“Whether it’s five or 35, we know we helped some kids out and filled their bellies today.”

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