National Guard working in Johnson County to package 4 million meals for food insecure Kansans

National Guardsmen can be used as food packaging volunteers since they were deployed as soldiers and therefore do not have to comply with social distancing guidelines. 

Social distancing requirements have made it difficult for a variety of businesses and programs to operate — including meal packaging efforts for food insecure individuals.

As COVID-19 stay-at-home orders progressed volunteer groups began cancelling meal packaging events with The Outreach Program, a national nonprofit that addresses hunger.  This created a supply issue for food banks that still needed access to shelf-stable goods.

Then, the Kansas National Guard stepped in.

Rick McNary, vice president of strategic partnerships at The Outreach Program, received a call from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, which was willing to fund production costs. KDEM informed McNary that the National Guard could be used as volunteers, since they were deployed and didn’t have to comply with social distancing guidelines as soldiers.

Now, the guardsmen have packaged three million meals — currently working on the fourth million — for food insecure Kansans.

“It’s given us the opportunity to help hungry people that simply did not exist until the Guard came in, not on this scale,” McNary said.

Guardsmen first measure out ingredients and use a funnel to pack them into a bag. Once completed, the bag is weighed, sealed and then put into a large box before it is packaged into a seven-meal pantry pack.

Since late April, about 40 to 50 soldiers have shown up to a former Leawood Hy-Vee to work in one of seven meal packaging lines. Soldiers pack, weigh, seal and box food bags that include menu items like mac and cheese, Spanish rice and minestrone soup.

The food is then put into seven-meal “pantry packs” to be distributed at food pantries throughout Kansas. There has been a focus on providing assistance to western Kansas, following COVID-19 outbreaks at meat packaging plants, McNary said.

Additionally, soldiers have shown the nonprofit a different operational approach, First Lieutenant William Burwell said.

“This is a great opportunity for us to use the training we received in support and logistics, and helping the community is obviously something we signed on to do in the state of Kansas,” Burwell said.

The Outreach Program and the National Guard have been working out of the former Leawood Hy-Vee. The building, 12200 State Line Road, will soon be renovated by Barstow School into an educational center serving metro area students and families.

Jennifer Dreiling, Barstow School vice president for external advancement said the Barstow School is honored to work alongside partners “to help the most vulnerable during this pandemic by creating millions of meals to proactively address hunger.”

“Making our Leawood facility available is one small way we can do our part and create a sense of security and normalcy for our families in need,” Dreiling said.

Each of the seven meal varieties are shelf-stable, protein-rich, nutrient-based and easy to make.

Volunteer groups willing to package meals using The Outreach Program’s social distancing method are wanted. These can include civic-based or faith-based groups, as well as companies.

To volunteer, contact Rick McNary via phone at (316) 734-6845 or via email at rick@outreachprogram.org. Production costs at this time are covered, but those interested in sponsoring a $14 pantry pack can also reach out.