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Operation Food Search Tackling the Pandemic of Hunger

Of the many effects of the Coronavirus crisis, food security has been one of its major victims. “In the last few years, we had seen child hunger drop to one in six children in America. With the pandemic, that number has gone back up to one in four,” says Jocelyn Fundoukos, Communications Manager at Operation Food Search (OFS).  “It’s devastating. But if there’s one positive that’s come from this, it’s a greater awareness of how close to hunger so much of our population is.”

For nearly 40 years, Operation Food Search has fought the good fight against hunger in the region as the largest distributor of free food, feeding an estimated 200,000 people in need every month. The food is distributed through a network of 330 partners and member agencies, including many food pantries, churches and community centers, stretching across 30 counties in Missouri and Illinois. 

Children, making up a large percentage of recipients, are also served through after-school and summer meal programs, along with Operation Backpack, an in-school program providing children who rely on school breakfasts and lunches with backpacks of nutritious, easy-to-prepare foods before weekends or breaks. Operation Backpack was recently awarded a YouthBridge YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) grant.  With many students learning virtually for the start of the new school year, the program has been slower to ramp up this year, says Fundoukos. 

When the pandemic upended students’ lives with schools closing in March, OFS hustled to reach them with emergency food, she says, such as setting up grab and go meal sites at local libraries and certain schools. “Essentially, we started our summer meals program early and, to date, have delivered over 400,000 meals.”

OFS has been part of a regional response team appointed to create a centralized system of response to meet the social needs of residents during COVID-19. “We say the only effective response is a coordinated one, and we’ve been honored to work alongside these other leaders to serve our area’s most marginalized and vulnerable populations,” says Fundoukos.

The need for a more equitable food system that doesn’t leave families vulnerable has become even more evident and urgent, she says. “Food inequity is a complex problem, so OFS tries to tackle it from many angles, including educating families on how to shop for and prepare healthy meals on a budget, rescuing unused food and crops, and helping lawmakers understand the systemic factors.”    

Fundoukos adds that hunger isn’t an urban-only issue, and in this pandemic, is touching people who never before were food insecure. “At the same time, people are really responding to the need – even those that don’t have a lot to give – and that gives me hope.”