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Fighting Childhood Hunger: An Interview with Founder Bob Bell

Every non-profit begins with passionate people wanting to improve a problem in their community, country, or in the world. We sat down with Bob Bell, one of the founders of Food for Thought, to learn more about what inspired him to start Food for Thought, the impact the program has had, and what’s in store for the future.

What was the inspiration behind Food for Thought?

Before Food for Thought, I was doing something similar in Arvada through the Rotary Club. Every Thursday, when I picked up the food, the lady that ran the Food Bank was like “There’s a huge need in Denver too,” and that went on for like a year. Finally, I just said to her, “Look. What do you want me to do?” And she said, “The problem in Denver is just running rampant, and no one’s addressing any of the kids in Denver.”

It was a fortuitous thing for me. I had a really close friend that was a special ed teacher in one of the schools that we’re still with, so I sat down with her and said, “Is this true that the kids in your school are not eating on the weekend?” Man, the story she told would just bring you to tears. You can’t hear those things and not do something, right?

So that’s when I went to my buddy John and said, “Hey, here’s the deal. Kids over in Denver need food.” And that’s kind of how it went down. We sat down over a beer and just kind of charted it out on a napkin and that was the genesis of Food for Thought.

Do you have a history of working in the non-profit area, or was this completely uncharted territory?

I don’t have that history, but I’ve been a member of Rotary, so I had dabbled with projects that club has undertaken – but nothing of this scale, of course.

We tried to vet everything through my friend Tracy’s principal, and the biggest thing the principal taught us was, “Don’t disappoint these kids. If you’re going to start it, have enough heart and have enough financial wherewithal not to quit.” And that became the difficult thing to do because, you know, you have to prepare, financially, this year, but then you’ve got to put a plan together for future. And this is not an inexpensive operation at all.

How did you fund Food for Thought at first? How did you know how much money you would need?

We didn’t know how much money we’d need, so we just started building partnerships. We went to our Rotary Club (John and I had been running their fundraisers for years), so we leaned on them at first. Getting aligned with The Food Bank of The Rockies also helped a lot because we could stretch our dollars three times as far.

We didn’t have a place to do all of the packing, but John was at Metropolitan State University in a separate business equation and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about starting this thing.” They’re like, “Why don’t you work out of here?” and we’ve been at Metro since then. They have been our guardian angels at every turn – facilities, resources, and access to their student body to help us. Anything we had needed, Metropolitan State University has never said “no” to us.

Let’s talk about the growth of Food for Thought – how were you able to bring Food for Thought into new schools after the first year?

Well, we started with two schools. We had about 550 kids for that first three months, but we tried not to worry about the money. We just don’t have any overhead, and we never will. And since day one, people have told us, “Hey, that’s not sustainable. You’re going to have to hire people.” We’re not going to do it because every kid is four bucks, and every $4 put towards a salary is $4 we can’t spend on a kid.

So when we started, we started talking that model up, and we asked another friend of ours to become our volunteer coordinator, and she agreed to help us get the word out. When you have that story that says, “Hey, if you give us a dollar, we’re going to buy food, and we’re not going to do anything else with it,” people just gravitate.

How many volunteers do you need?

When we started, we were thankful to have 20 people. Since then, our volunteer database is probably 3,000 people deep. Our biggest complaint from anybody (if they have a complaint) is they want more access to packing the bags than we can supply. It’s an awesome problem to have.

What have been Food for Thought’s biggest challenges throughout the years?

Keeping our foot on the gas when it comes to money – knowing that the need out there is 30,000 kids in Denver Public Schools. When you’re doing 500 like we were in the beginning, it was like, “Wow. Aren’t we amazing? We’re doing 500. But we have 29,500 other kids to get to.” One month from tomorrow, we’ll be in 17 different schools, with 6,000 kids. So, you know, it starts making a much bigger dent in that 30,000 population.

How does a kid “qualify” for a Food for Thought backpack?

There are two terms that are generic in the school system. One is, “Title 1,” and one is “Free and reduced lunch population.” As our charter, we target schools that have 90 percent or more kids that need free or reduced lunch because that tells us that they’re not able to pay for their hot lunch, and are likely not to have the food on the weekend.

In our experience, finding the kids who need help can be tough because even if you are hungry, you’ve got pride. A lot of kids don’t fill out the proper paperwork to register for free and reduced lunch. So if we identify a school, we just feed every kid in the school. What has proven to be true is that the kids who don’t need the backpacks know which kids do need them – so the food gets shared within the walls of their school.

Do your donations come more from individuals or corporations?

If you go by dollar value, it’s corporate. You know, we get some grants, and we have IMA. We have the CE Shop, and Visa has been a very generous contributor. But Food for Thought is built on $4 at a time – that’s what it costs to pack a bag. We have just an incredibly generous base of people that give $16 a month.

There are so many non-profits. There are so many needy organizations. Why do you think people choose Food for Thought over others?

Our overhead needs are very modest. Sure, we buy Rubbermaid bins, but our staff is 100% volunteer based. We can look you in the eye and honestly say, “We will not put a dollar of your donation to anything but food.” You don’t just have to write a check. You can come down and stand outside, under a bridge, with 100 other people that just want to get it done.

Food for Thought is hands-on, and tangibly affects kids in your community, today. We’re not sending anything overseas, or letting something pile up in a warehouse until the Christmas rush. We don’t do one-time events. Food for Thought makes a difference every week for these kids, and without fail, somebody comes up to us, every week and says, “Look. You guys are on the right track here. I was that kid, growing up. But somebody just did one thing for me that put me on the right track.” We’re living that tangible evidence every single year we do this program.

Tell me more about your annual fundraiser, Rock-A-Belly.

The first year, we had the opportunity to do a packing event as part of Rock-A-Belly. So we packed 100,000 meals for – in conjunction with an organization called Stop Hunger, and those meals were going to be shipped out of the country. It was good in that it let us galvanize a lot of our volunteers, and it was fun!

Now, it’s evolved into more of a chef tasting and brew festival. It’s more just a celebration of Food for Thought and its success and then we lean on people to make some donations and try to raise enough money to add a school to our list next year.

Do you rely on word of mouth for Rock-A-Belly at this point?

We rely on social media a lot. We also promote to our volunteer base – and so far we have not had a problem selling out year after year. All the chefs donate the food, donate their time. The beer, the liquor, the food – someone underwrites the music – everything is donated. So, again, true to our model, we don’t have overhead in anything we do because we’re just not going to do that.

You mentioned that Food for Thought runs on donations of $4 per kid. What is the best way to reach out to donate?

That’s exactly right. Four dollars a week, $16 a month, just $128 dollars a year. Imagine that – $128 can help a kid get through the weekends on a full stomach for an entire school year! There are a lot of ways to donate. We just talked about Rock-A-Belly, that’s a fun way to make a donation. And we actually have events all year long – if you follow Food for Thought on Facebook, you can get updates on new events.

The easiest way to donate though is to just make a recurring or one-time online donation to Food for Thought. It super easy to do, and we make sure to use a partner that is well-established and secure.

It’s amazing that Food for Thought has taken off like this. It’s almost like magic.

You can’t use a better word than “magic.” You just tell people, and they’re like, “This is cool.”

It was the right thing at the right time; it’s resonated with people because of its simplicity. It’s a lot of work, but the reward is ridiculous. There are days when I’m just driving down Colfax at 3 PM, and I see all those little kids crossing in the crosswalk, and they’re all carrying a Food for Thought bag. I mean, is anything better than that?

Learn more about Food for Thought’s mission and how you can help.

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