If there’s one thing Jess Kurti has learned as she’s visited food banks across the country, it’s that hunger isn’t an isolated condition that affects one segment of the population.
“I feel like hunger is a litmus test that says how we’re doing as a society,” she said. “Every cause we care about is reflected in the number of people we see with hunger issues.”
Whether the “cause” is children, seniors or veterans, the long arm of hunger impacts each one, said Kurti, 47, who lives in central Florida.
Students can’t concentrate on schoolwork if they haven’t had breakfast—and their lack of attention affects their ability to learn. Likewise, she said, former service members and older people can’t stay healthy without proper nutrition, which translates into higher health care costs.
Kurti’s view on hunger has changed in the last five years as she’s become the first person to volunteer at all 200 food banks in the Feeding America network. The nonprofit organization is the nation’s third-largest charity and feeds more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other community-based agencies.
The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank is part of the network, and Kurti made it the last stop on her nationwide tour. On Thursday, she walked through the Spotsylvania County warehouse, which is an old beer distribution plant, and asked about operations.
Carey Sealy, the food bank’s volunteer and event coordinator, explained that the facility serves Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, as well as a portion of Locust Grove. It’s on the small scale of food banks Kurti has seen; while visiting all 50 states and Puerto Rico, she saw some facilities that served as many as three states.
“We’re small but mighty,” Sealy told her.
During her daylong visit, Kurti went to a mobile pantry in King George County, one of about 70 partner agencies of churches and organizations that distribute food to more than 34,000 people in the region who don’t have enough to eat.
Kurti and Sealy delivered food to two women who have trouble getting to grocery stores. Then, with other volunteers, Kurti packed boxes of peanut butter and oatmeal, tuna and spaghetti sauce that are delivered to the area’s elderly and disabled residents each month.
Kurti’s key interest in hunger began in November 2012, when the meter reader lost her job with Florida Power and Light because of statewide updates to automation. She took off eight months to tour the country and realized she wanted to make some personal changes.
“I wanted a purpose-driven life, a life of service over self,” she said.
Kurti began volunteering at her local facility, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, and asked the CEO there if anyone had ever volunteered at all the facilities.
“He said, ‘No,’ and looked at me like I was crazy,” she said, laughing. “Now I know why.”
She started the quest in July 2014 and included the goal of running 100 marathons in between visits to food banks. She has covered her expenses through her own savings along with some donations from family.
As she started ticking off places and events, friends encouraged her to put a name to her effort, so she called it the “Beast of Burden Challenge” because of the burden hunger places on society.
Early on, she admits she had her own misconceptions about “the face of hunger.” She associated the hungry with addicts, the homeless or “old dudes wandering the streets, maybe with mental health issues.”
Then she started to see former co-workers who also lost jobs in the downsizing. They were working two or three jobs to make ends meet without retirement or benefits. As she traveled, she saw recent college graduates who struggled to buy groceries as they paid back their student debt.
“My view of hunger has definitely changed,” Kurti said.
She’d like to dispel a myth: Grocery stores typically don’t toss outdated food. Many give volumes of perishable and nonperishable items to their local food banks. They write off the donations, and the contributions help food banks stock their pantries.
“We don’t have a supply issue in this country,” she said. “We have a supply-chain issue.”
Kurti also wants to encourage others to do their part to fight hunger. Not everyone has to take on the “monumental” effort she did.
“Look at your child’s school or your faith group,” she suggested. “Find out who’s suffering and how you can help.”
More information about Kurti’s effort is available on Facebook under Beast of Burden Challenge or on Twitter or Instagram under 200foodbanks.