As parents, Mike and Colby Miller know the expense and challenges many families face when it comes to keeping food on the table and providing healthy meals for children. In summer 2014, they became more aware of the need after hearing a presentation at a local church about “food insecurity” facing many Northern Arizona families. The Millers learned that about 2,000 kids report to their teachers that they come to school hungry and often go to bed hungry, and many said they ate very little on the weekends. Often, the only healthy, balanced meal many of these kids receive is provided by the school system.
Thousands of children, more than 50 percent of elementary and middle school students in Northern Arizona, receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school, but often go hungry on weekends. These children are from families that live more than 18 percent below the poverty level, which means they are eligible for food assistance through school-based federally funded programs. However, when school ends – nights, weekends and extended breaks – so do their meals, affecting nearly 1,500 children.
The issue of childhood hunger, also known as food insecurity, kept the Millers up at night and consumed their minds and hearts. Within weeks of hearing the staggering statistics, the couple set out to try to solve the problem or, at the very least, decrease the problem. They began gathering food that they would give to a family when they were told of a need. Soon their garage was overflowing with healthy, sustainable food and supplies, just waiting to make it into the hands and mouths of children in need.
By December 2014, they had a business plan, several volunteers and a 501(c)3. They had a dedicated board of directors in place to offer support and guidance. The team chose the name Feeding Northern Arizona’s Future, which accurately describes the mission and the goals of the organization, which is a 100 percent volunteer-based organization.
“Our first official week, we only gave food bags to eight kids,” Mike said. “We continued to connect with more families who lacked the resources to feed their children. We truly had no idea the magnitude of the need or the immense response we would get.”
Each week, the Millers and a team of volunteers gather food donated by sponsors and community members and then put together food bags. Each bag contains enough food for six meals, as well as some snacks, totaling 3,000 to 3,500 calories. Food items are easy to eat, easy open and require no refrigeration, stove or dishes. Taking into consideration the bags will most likely be carried by a younger child, each bag weighs five pounds or less.
Before the weekend or a holiday, volunteers deliver the bags to the schools, working with school administrators to distribute the food to the students.
As word spread, more and more children were identified as needing assistance. By the end of the 2015-2016 school year, Feeding Northern Arizona’s Future was providing food for the weekend to more than 80 children. The Millers have secured some additional financial support to increase the number of weekly food bags from 80 to 220 for the 2016-2017 school year.
They developed a menu where $200 per year can help feed one child 228 meals over the course of the 38-week school year.
“There is so much need and we want to help as many as possible,” Mike said. “We know with some additional funds and volunteers we could easily help about 350 kids; this is our next hurdle and goal.”
With four children of their own (three still live at home), and each working full-time jobs, the Millers have dedicated time and their home to Feeding Northern Arizona’s Future. Their garage is now a bag-packing assembly line and food storage center. When everything is in place, they can assemble about 90 food bags in 30 minutes. However, the Millers will soon be looking for another space to accommodate the increased food stores and volunteers, as well as additional funding to meet the needs.
“One of the biggest challenges we face, especially when it comes to fundraising, is that some organizations and individuals think we are duplicating services and that we should be supporting programs that are already in place,” explains Colby. “Unfortunately, there is more lack than there are resources, so everyone must work together to meet the needs of those families who are struggling. Our goal is to fill in the gaps where some of the other organizations have not been able reach. Hopefully, where one organization’s outreach ends, another one begins.” FBN
To learn more about Feeding Northern Arizona’s Future and how you can help, visit FNAZF.org or Facebook.com/FeedingNAZFuture.
By Starla Collins, FBN
Colby Miller accepts donations at community events. With the help of volunteers, she and her husband, Mike, plan to provide weekend food for more than 80 children by the end of the school year.