When you opened an area newspaper or tuned in local radio over that last year, you could not help but notice the numerous activities involving Feeding Our Rural Kids Inc., more well-known by its acronym FORK. The Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC) noticed their efforts too.
“With the growth in non-profits in our region, we are delighted to recognize FORK, as our business of the month,” said Kathy Schmitz, VCEDC Executive Director. “It is a non-profit organization that demonstrates leadership, service, innovative programming, and creative local collaboration as they strive to provide nutritional support to children from food insecure homes within the Northland Pines School District. It truly is an organization that exists to fill a need, helping parents feed our rural kids, and does so successfully right here in Vilas County, one child at a time,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of families without steady employment. According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 million people, including 17 million children, experienced food insecurity in 2020. According to Feeding America, rural (nonmetropolitan) counties make up 63% of all U.S. counties but 79% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity.
“The underlying economic challenge around countywide wages, growth, and opportunity that led to the formation of the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation are some of the same challenges that created the need for an organization like FORK within those same communities,” said Schmitz.
FORK President Perry Pokrandt explained that a common misconception is that childhood food insecurity is a condition driven by poor parental choices. “The reality is that it is more often a result of circumstances outside of any individual’s control,” he said. “For example, a mother working as a waitress faces diminished income during a COVID-19 shut down. Or a regional lack of snow cripples our local winter economy, meaning she might need help to feed her children. In other instances, food insecurity occurs when a family with parents each working multiple jobs, are faced with the economic challenge of having their vehicles transmission go out; this leaves them to struggle to both repair it and feed their kids at the same time,” he said.
Perry expressed his support and appreciation to the VCEDC for its current leadership to improve broadband as well as market to remote workers, entrepreneurs, and new business to bring more workers and opportunities to Vilas County. “Promoting the opportunities Vilas County has to offer is just the first step toward a brighter economic future,” said Pokrandt. “As a county we need to improve our broadband here. Both for education and for industry. When we do, more people will come here to live and work. It is those additional workers and businesses that will help to build a local economy in which no child will be left behind,” he said.
Where did Perry find the passion for FORK?
“My wife was a teacher who came home every night and talked about food insecurity, sharing so many stories,” said Pokrandt. “When I retired, I went to talk with Scott Foster at Northland Pines School District about the early concept of FORK. He told me of the challenges faced by so many of our kids. When I started telling these food insecurity stories to build support for our new organization, people would often reply in disbelief, ‘Really?’ The answer to their initial disbelief is, Yes, our kids are challenged in ways that make it really difficult for many to achieve their full potential,” he said.
According to Pokrandt, there is room for improvement. “This is America, can’t we do better than this? This is Vilas County; I know we can do better than this. If we had more economic opportunity, people would bring the skills and boost the economy. The good news is that I believe that the existence of FORK, and other community driven organizations who are also working to improve the opportunity for our kids, means that our children are going to have the same chance at being successful as children anywhere else. Success will be measured for all from the same starting line. All our kids need is a chance,” he said.
Pokrandt added, “FORK, stands as a promise to area kids from food insecure homes. A promise that there is an entire community willing to stand with them to ensure that hunger does not stand in the way of success for any child. The hearts of the people are really big here, and because of that fact, all our children will receive the opportunity that they deserve.”