UG committee discusses ways to address littering from food pantry clients

Food pantry workers and volunteers turned out for a Unified Government committee meeting tonight to talk about a large number of food pantries serving the area.

Unified Government Commissioner Ann Brandau-Murguia had brought the issue to the UG Commission, saying that although she supports efforts to feed the needy, there were problems created with littering and traffic in the Argentine area. She added she was only addressing the issue as it related to the 3rd District.

In some cases, Murguia said people are coming to Argentine from outside of the area, and the community facilities were not designed to handle great amounts of traffic from it. The food pantries can’t be set up in a way to solve one problem and instead create other problems, she said.

UG Planning Director Rob Richardson showed a map that depicted most food pantries’ locations were in the eastern part of Kansas City, Kansas. He had a list of 21 food pantries serving the city, but Murguia said there were about five in Argentine, and some were not on the list. She said that some of the food pantries in Argentine were doing well and not creating problems, but some others had resulted in traffic jams and littering in neighborhoods.

Although the UG Administration and Human Services agenda stated that possible zoning restrictions would be discussed, there was no support at the meeting for zoning restrictions. Richardson said because many of the pantries were associated with churches or schools, zoning restrictions wouldn’t apply to them. The UG can control the rules at its own community centers and parks, and zoning isn’t applicable there, he added.

UG commissioners on the committee said they didn’t want to put restrictions on the food pantries, but they supported the food pantries sitting down and working together to address issues such as traffic and littering.

Representatives of food pantries in the community said some of the food pantries here have organized to make sure they don’t duplicate their efforts and have had meetings.

Beth Low-Smith, vice president of policy for KC Healthy Kids, said food insecurity affects 18 percent of Wyandotte County residents and 25 percent of Wyandotte County children, which is higher than the state average. Pantries are trying to help those who don’t qualify for food assistance, she said. Sixty-eight percent of the food pantries in the state are operated in religious organizations, she added. Many don’t have paid staff, and many of the volunteers are over age 60. Often, they don’t have the resources to relocate, she said.

If the food pantries were restricted, many would simply close, she said. Currently, at the federal budget level, programs such as Meals on Wheels could be eliminated. Low-Smith said she was concerned with the growing attacks on food programs, and that this is “not the time to make it more difficult for pantries to operate.”

It would make more sense to work with individual food pantries to resolve any problems than to pass restrictions on them, she said.

Janice Witt, who operates the nonprofit Reola Grant Center, which has a food pantry on Leavenworth Road, said when the UG funding was eliminated some years ago for Meals on Wheels, she tried to deliver meals herself to the homebound seniors in the program.

Witt said her concern was for everyone in the community who is hungry. She added that malnutrition leads to problems with behavior and problems in schools.

“These are the faces of hunger,” Witt said, introducing the committee to people attending the meeting who received food from the Reola Grant Center.

About litter in the neighborhoods, Witt suggested to the committee, “If there’s a problem and you see it, fix it.”

One of the persons attending the meeting who volunteers at the Reola Grant Center and had received food there described how the center set up appointments to avoid the traffic jams of their early days.

“We are the face of the people who need to use pantries,” she said. While her husband has a good job, making $20 an hour, they need assistance from a food pantry, she said. They have three children, and they had medical problems in their family, but their income was too much for food stamps, she added.

Commissioners Melissa Bynum and Jane Philbrook were against legislating anything to regulate the food pantries, and they were in favor of the groups coming together to coordinate plans on their own.

Commissioner Mike Kane agreed that there was a large level of need in the community. Although the state may be saying it has unemployment under control, it doesn’t, according to Kane, as many people have run out of unemployment funds, are not being counted as unemployed and are now relying on food pantries. He was not in favor of more regulations, but he supported food pantries sitting down and working out the issues.

He said it’s possible that people are coming to the Argentine area from other parts of the city because they are embarrassed to seek help in their own areas, and they don’t want other people to know they had to ask for food.

The issue Monday night was somewhat reminiscent of one that former mayor Carol Marinovich brought up in the 1990s about littering around a church food kitchen near Strawberry Hill. The issue was resolved when the food kitchen moved in 1997 to a nearby location, with the help of a federal grant coordinated by then-Sen. Bob Dole.

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