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Two missions: delivering food for the hungry — and hope for their spirits

Our theme tonight is “hunger in the headlines,” and you just witnessed testimonials [in a video presentation] from real neighbors — our neighbors — who live in houses on our street, go to our places of worship and help us at restaurants or the dry c

Editor’s note: Here are excerpts from remarks made Thursday by Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland, the state’s largest hunger-relief organization, at its annual fundraising event.

It’s difficult for me to know where to begin tonight’s remarks. Our theme tonight is “hunger in the headlines,” and you just witnessed testimonials [in a video presentation] from real neighbors — our neighbors — who live in houses on our street, go to our places of worship and help us at restaurants or the dry cleaner. These stories are so typical — and I doubt I can overstate the pain and despair of so many of our neighbors in this economic climate.

But we have been so bombarded with such discouraging news that we sometimes forget that these difficult times have also pushed many of us to be at our best. During a period of fear, I have also witnessed overwhelming charity, sacrifice, courage and … love. These are words that seldom appear in the news, and tonight I want to remind you that beauty is also thriving — so often embodied by people in this room. …

Most of you are already well acquainted with our work. You know that we are the largest hunger relief organization in Minnesota, and you know that we are constantly innovating to find more food for our neighbors. You know that through our partnerships, $1 donated to us allows us to deliver $9 worth of grocery products and that 96 percent of our expenses go to program. And you know, from our first-ever Missing Meals Report (PDF), that low-income Minnesotans are missing a staggering 125 million meals each year. That’s over 10 meals each month for every low-income man, woman and child in the state.

The mission behind the mission
You already know that we are good at delivering food. What you may not know, but what I have learned so poignantly this year, is that our mission behind the mission is delivering hope. For Donald and Julie and Katherine — neighbors whom you just met [in the video] — a box of food makes all the difference, and can change doubts — like: How far can I fall? When will it end? What will I feed them tomorrow? — into hope: I’ll get through this. Things will get better. I am not alone.

Rob Zeaske
Rob Zeaske

Over and over and over again, you help us deliver hope.

I had the experience of interviewing several of our clients at a local shelter for a hunger survey, learning about their lives and challenges through a series of prescribed, personal questions.

For as long as I live, I won’t forget Trudy. Articulate and about my age, Trudy was a former bank teller who lost her job and her home and was left by her husband. She was in a homeless shelter for the first time and fed her 2-year-old son oatmeal while she talked about her life. We had gotten through background and started to talk about her experience with hunger.

“Trudy,” I asked, “In the past 12 months, have you had to go without food when you were hungry?” “Yes,” she said.

“In the past 12 months, have you had to choose between any of the following?”:

• Food and medical attention or medication. “Yes,” she said.

• Between food and rent. “Yes.”

• Food and transportation or gas for your car. “Yes.”

I checked the appropriate boxes, turned the page and braced myself for the most difficult section. “In the past 12 months, has your son had to go without food when he was hungry?” “No,” she said firmly, as her eyes filled up with tears. Through a lump in my throat, I said, “Thanks for being a great mom.”

At the end of our interview, Trudy had the grace to ask me to thank the people responsible for the help she received. So thank you. Trudy gives me hope, just as we have given it to her.

I also have tremendous hope because of Barb. In early fall I received a short, handwritten note that I’d like to share with you:

Making good use of Grandma’s china
“My husband and I volunteered the day Second Harvest furnished the food distribution at St. Pete’s Church in Forest Lake. I could not believe the number of people who are in need of this giveaway.  I sold my grandmother’s china and am forwarding the results to Second Harvest. God Bless.”

Upon receipt, I made a copy of this note for every Second Harvest Heartland staff member as a reminder that we need to constantly be a fantastic organization to be worthy of so noble a gift.  Not a week goes by that I don’t ask someone on our team, “Is that the best use of Barb’s grandmother’s china?”

I am inspired that Barb entrusted us with her hope for a better community.

I am optimistic because, unlike so many of our world’s numerous problems, we in hunger relief have a finish line. Think about that. In this community, ending hunger need not be a coin-in-a-fountain wish.  We are faced with a straightforward resource and distribution problem that can be solved with reasonable, definable growth of existing programs, like Second Harvest Heartland’s partnerships that we celebrate tonight.  I am hopeful, because although the root causes of poverty are complex, feeding a neighbor isn’t.

We can do this.

I believe, because with all the gloom of the past year, people in our community have shared generously with us and the clients we serve.  While we celebrate General Mills as presenter of tonight’s event, we have enjoyed extraordinary support this year from Cargill, Target, Cub Foods, Ecolab, Bremer Bank and countless small and large companies who came to us with checks in December, saying, “We canceled our holiday party, and here is a check for what we would have spent.”

We were buoyed by Will Smith and Bernard Berian of the Minnesota Vikings who rallied us at holiday time. For all the dire, numbing news, I am hopeful because of the chorus of corporations and individuals — many here in this room tonight — that have said loudly and clearly, “Not on our watch.”

I can tell you on their behalf, that tonight, across our community, thousands of families are sitting down to kitchen tables and saying prayers of thanks — for you. All of you. They are counting you among their blessings. Imagine how many more families will be helped by our work tonight. I can assure you — they have never needed you more.  Thank you so much for your time, treasure and partnership.