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A Food Bank is Formed
In the late 1970s, much nutritious food was ending up in landfills because products were too close to their “sell by” date to remain on grocery store shelves, or food products did not meet manufacturer’s quality or branding standards. At the same time, concerned citizens in the community were working to feed those in need in Kansas City. In February 1979, these two groups came together and Harvesters—The Community Food Network was founded by a coalition of business people, faith leaders and social service agencies.
Operations began May 1 out of a space donated by Kansas City Cold Storage. In the first eight months of operations, Harvesters distributed 155,000 pounds of food to those facing hunger in five counties in the Kansas City area. We were one of 40 food banks in the country and one of the first to become an affiliate of the national organization now known as Feeding America.
Harvesters in the 1980s
Operations grew throughout the 1980s. Harvesters moved into a new building at 2431 Prospect and in 1982 reached a milestone, distributing one million pounds of food. In the mid-1980s, Harvesters launched the protein purchase plan and hired a food drive coordinator to organize food drives with corporations, civic and religious organizations, and schools.
In 1989, Harvesters began a new partnership with the USDA, distributing federal commodities to qualifying agencies. The Food Rescue Program was started to recover prepared, but unserved, excess food from corporate cafeterias, restaurants, hotels, and catering companies for use at on-site feeding agencies. In 1989, Harvesters moved again, to a larger location at 1811 N. Topping Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri.
Harvesters in the 1990s
In the early 1990s, Harvesters’ service area increased from five to 13 counties, and we distributed more than 9.6 million pounds of food in 1991. By the end of the decade, distribution had grown to 14 million pounds of food a year. In 1992, our signature program and one of our largest fundraisers, Check-Out Hunger, was created. The grocery coupon scanning program included 148 retail stores and raised $78,000 in its first year. Other special events were added in 1997, including Forks & Corks, Chefs Classic and the Quisenberry-Harvesters Celebrity Golf Classic.
Harvesters in the 2000s
New programs and continued growth led to a 11.5 million capital campaign and a search for an even larger location. In 2003, Harvesters moved to the current facility at 3801 Topping Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri. During these years, technology helped Harvesters continue to improve its efficiency and services to its member agencies. In 2003, Harvesters implemented the Harvesters Express online ordering system, enabling agencies to order food products online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In 2004, the BackSnack program, which provides weekly backpacks of nutritious food to elementary students for the weekends, began as a pilot program initially serving only 30 students. As the demand for food assistance grew, generous donations helped Harvesters expand the BackSnack program in 2008 to serve 8,000 students a week. Other programs added during this time include Senior Mobile Pantries, the Kids Cafe program to feed children after school and on weekends, and Kids in the Kitchen, a nutrition education program for children. In 2009, Harvesters was designated one of five Feeding America regional disaster staging sites. That year, Harvesters’ President and CEO, Karen Haren, was honored as Feeding America’s Executive Director of the Year.
In 2008, in response to the national economic recession, which in retrospect was the longest and deepest recession since The Great Depression, Harvesters experienced a 40 percent increase in the number of people needing food assistance. In response, thanks to the community’s support through donations of food, time and money, Harvesters stepped up to meet the increased need for food. During the next six years, Harvesters distribution to its agencies would nearly double, from 23 million pounds in fiscal year 2007 to 44.2 million pounds in 2013.
Harvesters in the 2010s
In January 2010, Harvesters became a partner and beneficiary of a popular new event, Kansas City Restaurant Week, which raised $56,000 in its first year.
In October 2010, Harvesters opened its second distribution center at 215 Southeast Quincy Street in Topeka, Kansas. The new facility helps the food bank strengthen services and increase the amount of food available to partner agencies in northeastern Kansas. That year, Harvesters earned the food industry’s highest food safety rating, becoming one of only two food banks in the nation to receive a superior rating from AIB International.
The highlight of 2011 came in April, when Harvesters was named Feeding America’s Food Bank of the Year. The award recognized Harvesters as a national role model for using its community’s resources wisely to feed those facing hunger.
In June 2013, long-time President and CEO Karen Haren retired. Following a national search by Harvesters’ board of directors, Valerie Nicholson-Watson was named her successor.
In 2014, Harvesters marked its 35th anniversary and distributed more than 43 million pounds of food.
In 2016, Harvesters began work on a major addition to its Kansas City facility, the first expansion since the current facility opened. The project increased the size of the freezer/cooler to allow for increased acquisition and distribution of fresh produce.
In 2017, Harvesters completed its construction project at the Kansas City facility, adding 13,000 square feet to the organization’s cooler, creating a new climate-controlled area for packing BackSnacks and boxing bread donations and included a Bulk Repackaging Zone, where bulk dry goods like rice, pasta, cereal and flour can be re-packed into family-size portions. In addition, Harvesters distributed more than 50 million pounds in one year for the first time in its history. The Acquisition department also marked the milestone of collecting 750 million pounds of food and household products in the organization’s history.
In 2018, Harvesters completed its renovation project at the Kansas Distribution Center in Topeka, Kan. Key components of the project included renovation of the cooler, expansion of the freezer, renovation of the volunteer engagement center, Hunger Education Center, front lobby/entrance, and agency pickup and loading dock areas. Outside, the building received a new roof and new paint. In addition, Harvesters received preliminary certification from the USDA to begin re-packing meat product donations inside its Clean Room facility in the Kansas City warehouse. Harvesters also piloted a school pantry program in six elementary schools.