Harvesters Through the Years

Harvesters in the 1970s – A Food Bank is Formed

In the late 1970s, immense amounts of nutritious food were being thrown into landfills even as Kansas City struggled to fight hunger among its citizens. Grocery stores were forced to dispose of food whose “sell by” date was approaching or which did not meet manufacturers quality or branding standards. There was no system in place for getting that food to the people who needed it. In February 1979, a coalition of business people, faith leaders, and social service agencies came together to forge a solution. That day, Harvesters-The Community Food Network, was born.

On May 1st, Harvesters began operating out of a space donated by Kansas City Cold Storage. In just its first 8 months of operations, Harvesters distributed 155,000 pounds of food to those facing hunger throughout 5 counties in the Kansas City area. It was one of only 40 food banks in the country, and one of the first to affiliate with the national organization now known as Feeding America.

Harvesters in the 1980s

Harvesters continued to grow in the new decade, moving into a new building at 2431 Prospect. In 1982 Harvesters distributed one million pounds of food for the first time. In the mid-1980s, Harvesters launched a protein purchase plan to improve nutrition for its patrons, and hired a food drive coordinator to organize food drives with its valuable partners, including corporations, civic and religious organizations, and schools.

In 1989, Harvesters began a new partnership with the USDA, distributing federal commodities to qualifying agencies. It also started the food rescue program to recover excess food from corporate cafeterias, restaurants, 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 5 to 13 counties, while distributing more than 9.6 million pounds of food. In 1992, Check-Out Hunger was created, and became a flagship program. 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. By the end of the decade, distribution had grown to 14 million pounds of food a year. 

Harvesters in the 2000s

New programs and explosive growth necessitated a successful 11.5 million dollar 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 expand its 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, 7 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 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 included 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 5 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, Harvesters experienced a 40 percent increase in the number of people needing food assistance, Harvesters and its partners stepped up to meet the increased need for food. During the next six years, Harvesters distribution to its agencies nearly doubled, 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 helped the food network 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 2016, Harvesters began work on a major freezer expansion to its Kansas City facility, to allow for increased acquisition and distribution of fresh produce. The project added 13,000 square feet to the organization’s cooler, created 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 could be re-packed into family-size portions. By 2017, Harvesters had distributed more than 50 million pounds in one year for the first time in its history. That year the Acquisition department also marked the milestone of having collected 750 million pounds of food and household products throughout 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, and renovation of the volunteer engagement center, Hunger Education Center, front lobby/entrance, building exteriors, agency pickup, and loading dock areas. 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.

In 2019 Harvesters launched 18 school pantry programs in elementary schools. The pantries provide food for parents dropping off or picking up children from school and helped supplement the BackSnack program by providing food for the whole family. In addition, Harvesters expanded its Health and Hunger initiative by adding mobile pantries that specifically serve veterans, or are hosted at a medical clinic or physician’s office. Harvesters also further reduced its carbon footprint by replacing all lighting throughout the Kansas City facility with LED lights. Harvesters’ number of agency network partners grew to more than 760 agencies. Harvesters was also the first Feeding America food bank to volunteer to be part of an unscheduled AIB food safety audit and successfully received a top score. 

In late 2019, Harvesters implemented Four Good, a food-tasting event in the Topeka market. This event exceeded fundraising expectations with more than $80,000 raised.

As 2019 came to a close, Harvesters celebrated its 40th anniversary of operation. The Sosland Family and Foundation hosted a special luncheon to thank key long-time supporters of Harvesters’ mission.

Harvesters in the 2020s

Early in 2020, Harvesters re-engaged agency partner, Just Food, as an RDO (Redistribution Organization) partner.

In March 2020 Harvesters responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic when it struck the region. Demand for food assistance surged to an all-time high with Harvesters setting monthly and annual distribution records as agencies reported a 40 percent increase in need. Operations were greatly impacted as the number of food drives dropped and volunteer shifts were limited due to social distancing and other safety concerns. Harvesters distributed a record 65.9 million pounds of food, and raised a record $23 million in donations.

In 2021, as the pandemic continued, Harvesters continued to respond to the high demand for food assistance across its service area.