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With starvation increasing, Minnesotans pitch in
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Kris Saburn of Feed Our Starving Children provides a tutorial on packing food to volunteers from Monticello. (MPR Photo/Eugene Cha)
2004 was a bad year for preventing starvation around the world. The United Nations reports that the estimated number of people dying of hunger has gone up for the first time in nine years. The U.N. also estimates that 5 million children died of starvation in the last year. But one Twin Cities non-profit group is trying mightily to improve the situation. Feed My Starving Children has bought, packed, and delivered more than 5 million meals to starving kids and adults around the world in the past year. And they did it with a staff of just just 4 full-time workers.

St. Paul, Minn. — Mark Crea is driving the forklift on top of all his other duties. He's in a hurry today. As executive director of Feed My Starving Children, he has to greet 35 volunteers from the Monticello school district who are about to arrive, but he still has to finish moving eight 1,000-pound sacks of food from a semi truck that's been backed up to the warehouse.

Just as Mark finishes, the volunteers arrive. The students are 6th- to 12th-graders. Their task: packing various ingredients into plastic packages about the size of your hand.

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Image More than just a full stomach

The food itself plays a big role in enabling the Minnesota-based group to ship so many meals. It's a special formula of dried ingredients, so it's easy to pack and ship.

The volunteers wash their hands, grab aprons, and don hairnets. They gather around a table with Kris Saburn, a trainer, who's going to show them what to do.

On the tables are plastic tubs of ingredients like soy and rice. They're part of the special formula that was developed by food scientists at Cargill, Pillsbury, and General Mills back in the early '90s.

Mark Crea says the food does more than just fill a starving child's stomach "because it has all the vitamins and minerals, that's what a starving child needs for their cognitive development, for their eyesight, hearing, motor skills, that's what they're severely lacking. And we know from the scientists we work with that if se can get to a child before the age of give, that's in that starvation state, we can reverse any of that and avoid permanent damage," he says.

The formula's ingredients must be packed in a specific order. Kris Saburn, standing in front of a funnel with a bag underneath, shows the students how it's done.

The dried chicken flavoring is one of the most important ingredients. It's in powdered form and fortified with 17 vitamins and minerals.

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Image Fun helping

Then dried vegetables like onions and carrots.

Third, dried soy for protein.

"And the rice is going to be the last," she says. Rice fills the stomach, and provides carbohydrates.

The bag is removed from the funnel, and eventually carried to a volunteer who weighs each of them. The bag is then sealed shut and then shaken to make sure the seal is tight. Then its packed in boxes and put on a warehouse platform, ready for shipping. Each bag contains enough food for six meals. Each meal costs 17 cents. Just add 6 cups of boiling water, and it cooks up just like a rice casserole.

After the quick tutorial the students divide up into teams of five at tables around the room. Feed My Starving Children has honed this assembly line process for more than a decade.

Crea says, years ago, the organization considered building a machine to do the assembly-line work of the volunteers. But, instead, it intentionally set up a user-friendly volunteer experience to do the job.

"It's a great way for families to come in and have a real concrete impact on the world," he says. "What we tell the kids, because most of our volunteers are young people, so it's kids feeding kids, which is awesome, is the next person to touch this food is going to be that starving person."

By now, the room's humming. People know what they're doing and the ingredients are scooped into the plastic bags with clockwork precision.

Grace Olson, from Monticello High, is busy trying to keep up with her team. "I have done stuff like this like at soup kitchens, but I haven't actually done Feed My Starving Children," she says. "It's a fun experience. I mean, it feels really good to help people and in the process you can have fun. And, I don't know, you just feel good about yourself."

One of the adult chaperones is Grace's aunt, Peggy Mason. "Just listening to this table. The kids just saying, 'I'm just so glad I'm here. I'm so glad I took the time away to do this,' so it does make them appreciate. It's a treat to listen, even to their comments that they're making here."

The organization does little advertising. Crea says they get volunteers through word of mouth at churches, little leagues, and community gatherings. That's exactly what Peggy Mason is doing.

"I know I mentioned it to some people in church and they're like, 'let me know how it goes,' because they know about it and they've heard about it and even just friends, when I mention it, they all want to know about it, and I just think, anybody can do it," she says.

Feed My Starving Children holds two-hour shifts four times a day, six days a week. They've opened a new site in Eagan which has brought in far more volunteers than expected. But, for this volunteer crew the shift is over. They've spent a little more than an hour packing meals. Gone are the aprons, and hairnets. They gather, wanting to know how many meals they've packed.

"You packed 4,320 meals," Mark Crea tells them. "Now right now, we're working on shipments of food to go to a number of countries. We're trying to get some food into the Sudan, you might have heard how terrible they've got a real awful civil war going on there. We're trying to get some food into Uganda, and to Tanzania, and we're working to try to get some food into Peru. There's 2,000 people living in a garbage dump in Peru, and that's what they're eating. And so we're trying to get some food to the kids and to the adults there. So, that's, some of the food you packed today is likely to go to one of those countries."

Crea says the group has a good track record in getting the food to those who need it most, working with other non-profits. They've had only one shipment hijacked by bandits in 17 years. As busy as he's been in 2004, Crea is gearing up for a big January in 2005. He wants to pack 1 million meals in the month. The biggest hurdle is raising enough money to buy enough food. He sees a big future for the organization.

"We're hoping to take this regional and national eventually. We think it's a model that could really spread across the country," Crea says.

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