Knox County’s hunger ratings require us all to pitch in
Five or six years ago, I started a new holiday tradition. On the day after Thanksgiving, I would visit my friend Billy Kidd, the late WIMZ DJ, as he kicked off his yearly “Camping for Cans” food drive to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee.
During the fundraiser, Billy broadcast from a camper and a semi-trailer. The campaign concluded only when that trailer was filled.
During the 20 years that Billy championed “Camping for Cans,” he helped raise more than $500,000 and collected more than 30 tons of food for Second Harvest. What I will always remember, however, are the stories he told of the people who made those donations. Like the children who proudly gave a single can of food, encouraged by their parents to start the habit of giving early, no matter how small the amount or gesture. Or the man who gave him $20, saying that a few years prior he lost his job and turned to Second Harvest for help, but now that he was employed again, wanted to pay it forward.
Sadly, despite the work of individuals like Billy Kidd and organizations like Second Harvest, hunger remains an issue in East Tennessee with almost 240,000 at risk every day in the 18 counties the nonprofit serves. And tragically, one out of every four children in our region is part of that number.
Feeding America reports that Knox County’s food insecurity rate (for 2018) was 11.7 percent, meaning 53,000 people in our own community did not have reliable access to food. During the pandemic, that number was projected to rise to 13 percent.
Knox County, fortunately, has a network of diverse nonprofits, charities, and churches working together to address this issue.
Tackling the hunger issue has long been a priority for Knox County. And nonprofit partners like Second Harvest stand at the foundation for much of the effort. While many of us consider providing food for those in need around the holidays, Second Harvest works on feeding East Tennesseans year-round, knowing that hunger has no season. The organization arranges programs to meet every corner of our region. No one hungry is forgotten.
Second Harvest’s effort is far-reaching, but they aren’t alone. Programs like the LORD’s Child and Mobile Meals meet significant needs in this community.
The LORD’s Child was founded in 2007 by Gene and Karen Wolfenbarger to meet the needs of the impoverished in Africa, Asia, and in some of the poorest counties in the United States. Their home is right here in south Knox County.
Only one family sought help when they first opened. Now, each week the couple supplies hundreds of families with healthy, nutritious food items and daily meals to more than 70 senior citizens. Their summer nutrition program also helps children across the region.
The Knox County Community Action Committee’s Mobile Meals program delivers meals five days a week to Knoxville and Knox County seniors. Since taking office, I’ve ridden along each month and have come to find that this is so much more than just a delivery service; it provides a personal connection for these seniors. Volunteers sit and spend time with those they deliver to. It makes an impact that reaches far beyond the meals they are providing.
Although Mobile Meals primarily serves senior citizens, hunger is an issue that does not discriminate. It is impacting our young people as well.
Every day, thousands of children across the Knox County School District attend school to learn, but also to eat. Our schools provide two nutritious meals a day for every student who wants one—even when classes aren’t in session. We are fortunate to have an amazing school nutrition team and hundreds of volunteers who work tirelessly to make this happen.
It is hard to learn when you are hungry. As humans, we must satisfy basic needs like safety, shelter, and food before we can attend to other important, albeit less urgent needs like education, which is why these programs are so critical.
During the summer, I sat down with Chris Battle—the former senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church—who started his first community garden in 2018 on a vacant plot of land across from his church. Battle has some big goals: encourage young folks to take care of the planet and also fight food disparity.
This year, he purchased a two-acre plot on Boyd’s Bridge Pike with the help of a GoFundMe campaign and named it BattleField Farm and Gardens. There he not only provides affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, but also teaches people from all walks of life about better eating and nutrition.
I encourage you to think like Mr. Battle; think about ways you can support those in our community who need help, but also how you can support those who are helping. And not just in the season of giving— year-round, too. Consider times of the year when others don’t make charitable contributions and food sources may be limited.
Knox County is the best place to live, work, and raise a family. I truly believe that, but we can’t meet our vision of a vibrant community that provides everyone an opportunity to thrive and grow if thousands of our neighbors don’t know where their next meal is coming from or must choose between paying rent and buying groceries.
As we approach the end of the year, put yourself in the shoes of someone who may be struggling. Give what you can, help where you can. And, as my friend Billy Kidd would say, don’t leave until the trailer is full.