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NEWS | May 28, 2020

Kansas National Guard serves up millions of meals

By 1st Sgt. Mark Hanson Kansas Adjutant General’s Department

LEAWOOD, Kan. – Citizen-Soldiers are sworn to protect and serve their communities. While many Kansas National Guard members are accustomed to responding to natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods and snowstorms, it’s not often that the Guard gets called upon to protect people from hunger.

Soldiers from the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment, Kansas Army National Guard, have worked with The Outreach Program to package 1 million meals to be distributed to food banks across Kansas.

The 1 million meal mission began in early May with members of the Kansas Guard unloading equipment and setting up assembly-line tables at the Barstow School’s IDEA Space in Leawood. The Outreach Program’s staff then demonstrated the food packaging process and safety protocols for handling food.

“We have pretty stringent safety protocols that we have already trained the Soldiers in,” said Rick McNary, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Outreach Program. “They’ll work through those processes as they assemble meals.”

McNary said hunger is a national defense and security issue.

“And what I find so powerful in what we’re doing here is that, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said.

Many food distribution programs around the nation are performed mainly with volunteers. But stay-at-home orders are keeping those volunteers at home, unable to assist food banks. At the same time, more people need help as a result of growing unemployment and disruptions in food distribution channels caused by the pandemic.

“Being able to engage the National Guard to not only assemble the meals but help in the distribution and ensure these meals get into the hands of those who need them the most is absolutely vital,” said McNary. “These guys and gals are going to help provide food security.”

“They’re just jumping right in,” said 1st Lt. Blake Satterfield, commander of Company C, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment. “As soon as we had this mission start, they were just excited and ready to help out however they could.”

Kansas National Guard members have been actively working food packaging and food distribution missions across the state.

“This whole mission is definitely a new experience,” said Satterfield. “We’ve got scouts, we’ve got tankers, we’ve got infantrymen, we’ve got a combination of everyone from different parts of the battalion that wouldn’t normally interact or see each other – so it’s good for them to see and interact with guys that aren’t just from the same squad they’d normally see every drill weekend.”

The assembly line process for constructing 1 million meals requires a team of four to six Soldiers at each table. Each team is responsible for packaging one of the seven meal varieties. Two Soldiers scoop raw product into funnels while a third holds the meal bag, which is prepackaged with the specified meal seasoning. Another team member weighs the bag to ensure it is within the weight tolerance level. The meal is then vacuum sealed and sent to be boxed up.

“It seems pretty simple, but it is a workout on your traps (trapezoid muscles) and back muscles,” joked Sgt. Gordon Lawson, an infantryman with Company C. “I do surprisingly get a little workout from scooping all day.”

Lawson, a native of Leavenworth, says the 1 million meal mission is a perfect example for why most choose to serve in the Guard.

“It’s what it means to serve right now, the ability to look out for your community, and I’m all about that,” said Lawson. “I feel like this is my chance to do good for the community, and that’s really why I enlisted.”

The properly proportioned bagged meals are evenly distributed into small boxes called ‘pantry packs.’ Each pack contains seven bags of each one of the seven meal varieties. According to McNary, each box only weighs 5 pounds, which allows it to be easily distributed.

“The idea for this came from conversations we had with organizations like Meals on Wheels, Feeding American, et cetera, saying we need small boxes that can get into the hands of people who are in need of food assistance,” said McNary. “These are crucial to fill a gap that has been opened because of supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.”

The meals were formulated by Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science, and are specifically crafted to be shelf-stable, nutrient-dense, protein-rich, and easily prepared.

“At my table specifically, we’re putting together macaroni with tomato basil sauce,” said Lawson. “I’ve honestly lost count at this point how many we’ve made – I just see macaroni and soy and think ‘OK, let’s just keep going.‘ ”

“Music definitely helps,” said Cpl. Stormie Bush, a paralegal specialist for Company C. “We try to go as fast as possible and we do get a little competitive between teams at times to see who can make the most.”

A softball coach in Melvern, Bush says she appreciates the importance of the mission, the comradery it’s building, and the opportunity the Guard has provided her.

“As you know all sports have been canceled and everything we were doing was remote,” said Bush. “So when this opportunity came up I was just like, sign me up.”

“I think it’s great, a lot of these guys just really want to help out,” said Satterfield. “It’s also good because some of my guys were laid off or furloughed due to the stay-at-home order – so being put on orders is not only helping the community but it’s helping some of these guys financially.”

Assembling the meals is only the first part of the mission. Completed pantry packs are placed on a pallet, wrapped and moved to a loading zone where they are shipped out to areas in need.

“Everything that we’re making is staying here in the state and helping out citizens of Kansas,” said Bush. “I feel good, knowing that I’m doing something productive and that helps out during these uncertain times.”

Providing 1 million meals to citizens affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is an incredible feat. However, the Soldiers of the 2-137th didn’t stop there. After completing their first million ahead of schedule, the Kansas Guard members continued their pace and packaged a second million well on their way to 3 million meals – providing an even higher level of food security for Kansans.

“It’s been incredible watching these men and women work,” said McNary. “I can’t stress enough the importance of providing food security, and the Kansas National Guard and Kansas Division of Emergency Management are really getting in front of that and providing caring resources to Americans and especially Kansas citizens who are hungry.”



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