Thirty years ago, Larry Jones and his wife Frances began operating a volunteer charity effort from their kitchen table. In the decades since, Feed The Children has grown to become one of the world’s largest private charitable organizations dedicated to helping hungry and hurting people. Feed The Children has provided food and other essentials to children and families affected by hunger, poverty and natural disasters in 118 countries around the world.
We were especially intrigued by the fact that Feed The Children has a program through which they take large donations of product from a network marketing company and distribute it to needy people. — J.D.M.
I understand you had a road-to-Damascus sort of experience in Haiti, sometimes called the “poverty capital of the Western hemisphere”?
That’s right. In January 1979, I was speaking at a church in Port-au-Prince. The pastor there had been educated in Dallas and then gone back to Haiti to help his own people.
The church had a congregation of about 1,500 people. Yet when I arrived there, I saw that there were only two cars outside. One was the pastor’s, and the other belonged to his associate pastor, who was a cab driver during the day.
After the service, the associate took me back to my motel room, which was about seven feet by nine feet, with no air conditioning. It was 95º and about 95 percent humidity. I was wringing wet with sweat.
As I got out of the car, a little boy came up to me and said, “Got a nickel?”
I said, “Yeah, what for?”
And he said, “I haven’t had anything to eat all day, and if you give me a nickel, I’ll go to the store over there and buy a roll.”
I said, “Okay,” and reached in my pocket—and he said, “Do you have three pennies?”
I laughed and said, “What are they for?”
He said, “Well, if you give me three pennies, he’ll cut the roll in half and put butter on it.”
I said, “You’ve got to wash it down. How much is a Coke?” Twelve cents, he told me, so I gave him two dimes. He thanked me and went across the street to get his buttered roll and Coke.
In the days afterward, I kept seeing that little fellow running across the street. I can still see him today.
Being from Oklahoma, I happened to know that at the time, America had 35 million metric tons of wheat stored in grain elevators. And here was a child, an hour and a half away by air, who didn’t even have a piece of bread.
I told this story on television, and then added this comment: “You know, common sense tells me that if we would use this wheat, we could feed hungry children; it would help the farmer, because he can’t get a good price with such a surplus; and it would help the taxpayers, because we’re paying millions of dollars to store it while it just sits there.”
That’s all I said.
The next thing I knew, over the following two months more than fifty farmers called me and said, “Hey, I saw you on TV and I think you’ve got a great idea.”
I didn’t have an idea! I just made an observation—and they took it and ran with it. When I hear people say, “Larry and Frances started Feed The Children,” I say, in the first place, we just happened to be standing there when God started it, and in the second place, it wasn’t us who made it happen, it was the Oklahoma farmers.
Those farmers gave me fifty truckloads of wheat, which is more than two million pounds. I’m a city boy, not a farm boy. I had a two-car garage. I had no idea what to do with all that wheat!
I started getting it cleaned and bagged and sent overseas.
A man called from Nebraska and said, “I have a commercial wheat grinder—I’ll go down and set it up for you.” He did, and then we ground the wheat and gave it to people so they could make bread. That was the beginning of Feed The Children.
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. This coming January, we’ll turn thirty.
And in that thirty years, Feed The Children has grown a bit, I understand.
The auditors are here today, because our fiscal year ends June 30, and they tell us we’ll exceed $1 billion this year.
This is how it works. If you’ve got product, then you need to raise money to move product. This year we raised something like $115 million in cash, but we got also some $1 billion in “gifts in kind.” I’m Scottish, and before I buy something, I go ask for it!
We have fifty-five semis. If you have a surplus, we will be there within 72 hours to pick it up. We’ll get it to where it needs to go, and then we’ll report to you where we took it. Or, if you have a particular place you want it to go, we’ll see that it gets there, and the people can report back to you.
Frances Jones with Daniel Wachira of the Villa Teresa School in Oklahoma City. Daniel received the “Loving Hearts Award” in February 2007, which is presented to a caring child who displays and overabundance of kindness and respect to fellow classmates.
Larry Jones directing a Feed The Children truck.
Larry and Frances Jones feeding children at the Frances Jones Abandoned Baby Center, located in Nairobi, Kenya.
Larry and child at a truck distribution in Elkhart, Indiana, January 2005.
When you say “surplus,” you mean food, or other things as well?
We’ve found that there’s plenty of everything in the world. It’s just in the wrong places. This year we received a million pairs of shoes from Crocs. All we had to do is find children without any shoes. We’ve shipped them literally all over the world.
Three years ago, we started delivering backpacks filled with food and school supplies to homeless schoolchildren. We distributed 47,000 the first year, 80,000 last year, and this year we’re doing 100,000.
In these thirty years, how has the world changed in regard to its sense of charity? Or has it changed at all?
One thing that has changed the whole face of charity is the rise in gas prices and what that’s done to the food supply.
So many farmers who used to grow wheat are now growing corn for ethanol. So we don’t have as much wheat as we once had, which means not nearly as much wheat will be given away.
This has also made the price of wheat go through the roof. A few years ago, if you’d said wheat would go as high as $15 or $16 a bushel, they would have laughed at you. But it has.
So supply is pinched, but need is as great as ever.
Greater! The world’s population has grown, and there are still huge numbers of people who are too poor to afford the basics of life.
There’s also a lot of need for food coming from natural disasters.
Two weeks ago, with [hurricane] Gustav, we had 1,700 people here in Oklahoma City from New Orleans; Oklahoma City housed them and we fed them.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, we have sent over 650 truckloads into New Orleans and Mississippi.
At the same time, we’ve been sending food into Florida. And now, with [hurricane] Ike on the way, they’re getting ready to evacuate people in southern Texas all the way to Dallas and Oklahoma City. And we’ve got people who haven’t recovered from Gustav yet!
Then you add into the picture the many civil conflicts throughout the world, like in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe right now, and you have literally millions of people who are going hungry.
You mentioned fuel prices…
That’s still another factor. People are compassionate and they want to help, but everything you want to give people has to be moved by truck. Diesel fuel used to be about 25¢ to 50¢ lower than unleaded—but right now it’s about 50¢ to 60¢ higher than unleaded.
It’s costing me $100,000 more to run my trucks this year than it did a year ago.
And soon we’re going to be coping with winter, which means heat for a lot of people who won’t be able to afford it.
We’ve got a real problem on our hands. There’s going to have to be a whole lot of love this Christmas, and January, February and March, or else lots of people are really going to suffer.
It’s one thing to give away surplus when you’re doing well yourself. But when things are really tight, what impact does that have on people’s charitable giving? Does it just dry up and go away?
Most charities say they’re down 10 to 20 percent; some are saying it’s more like 30 or 40 percent. And these are your smaller charities, who don’t have the media exposure some of the larger charities have.
There are 1.2 million charities in America. Since January 1, more than 2,000 trucking companies with 100 units or less have gone bankrupt. If you’re a small trucking company, you probably can’t make it, and the same is true if you’re a small charity.
Of course, we’re now a big charity—but what people often don’t realize is that even charities like us depend on people giving us those $10, $15 and $20 donations. Our average gift is something like $25 to $30, coming from ordinary people. Now, when these people are really hit hard, it’s easy to start asking, “Do I support a charity, or do I eat this month?”
Part of our challenge is educating the American people that we have a problem right here in this country. Until you or someone close to you has actually gone hungry, it’s hard to convince Americans there’s a genuine hunger problem right in the United States.
We don’t see it on television, so it’s incomprehensible to us.
That’s exactly right. “I went to the supermarket last week and it was full, so we must not have a hunger problem.”
We know there’s hunger in developing countries, but once we realize there are people living down the street who are having a tough time, we say, “Hey, we’re going to have to do something at home.”
You have a relationship with one large networking company.
Yes, and we’re able to work with a company like this very well, because they have product they want to move, and we can move it.
They give me their product, and I raise the money to get it to the people who really need it.
By the way, I think one reason network marketing is becoming such a phenomenon is that you can’t depend on the conventional forty-hour workweek anymore.
Right here in Oklahoma City, a major company laid off 150 people last week. When you get laid off, I don’t care what kind of job you have, it’s very difficult to walk out of that building with your pink slip and go to the next building and get a job of equal pay and equal benefits.
Slowly but surely, many people in the middle class are falling into the lower-middle class.
The opportunities are there for those who are willing to take risks, and who are on the cutting edge of something that’s getting ready to happen.
But for the average working American who wants to work, have a family and create a little retirement, that “normal American life” is slowly vanishing.
Many, many people are having a rude awakening. So many people who were retired and had their lives planned out are now being forced to go back to work at a menial job and make minimum wage.
The bulk of your donor base is not big corporations taking a whopping charitable tax deduction, but ordinary people saving some dimes from their paychecks to give to you?
Recently, a little boy in northern Mississippi named Hunter saw us on television, and told his mother he wanted to do something. They decided to grow a garden.
You know how kids have lemonade stands? Well, Hunter had a vegetable stand, only he gave away the vegetables for free. And when people came to get them, he told them what he was doing—and they made a donation to Feed The Children.
His grandmother and grandparents live out here in Oklahoma, so he came out to visit this summer, and when he did, he brought me a check for $71.50, made out to Feed The Children.
And he’s five years old!
And he’s not the only one. I was eating at a restaurant down the street from my office, and the woman who waited on us recognized me. She said, “I’m so glad to meet you! My little boy, he’s five, he saw you on TV and said, ‘Mama, I want to open my piggy bank and give it all to Feed The Children.’ So we opened it, counted it, and dropped it off at Feed The Children.”
That’s how we exist.
Given the current tough times, what do you see for the future?
I think we’re going to go back to the basics. For example, I think we’re going to see a whole lot more individuals having their own gardens.
When you have a garden and you grow more tomatoes than you can eat, you typically say, “I don’t want these tomatoes to rot on the vine—who can I give them to?”
And if you have your own garden, that means you’ll probably spend less time traveling beyond your city limits.
Instead of taking vacations to the exotic places of the world and discovering what a wonderful world we live in, we’re going to start discovering who our neighbors are.
This summer, here in Oklahoma, our parks filled up because people couldn’t afford to travel outside the state. I think there will be more and more people who, as they readjust their lives, realize that discovering their neighbors may be as exciting as discovering the Grand Canyon.
And perhaps we don’t have to go to the four corners of the world to discover that people are hungry, as well.
Exactly. Also, many people now are working from home. And because of the computer, there are more ways to work from home. And you don’t need to pay for a babysitter when you work from home.
We have people here at Feed The Children who work, say, four days a week at our office, and then another day or two at home.
Now we’re talking about going to a four-day workweek, just to save people a day of gas. We’ve already lost some employees because they live 40 miles away and couldn’t afford the 80 miles round trip every day. They say, “We’ve got to work closer to home, because all of our money’s going for gas.”
When people start to get squeezed, do they pull in their horns and watch out for #1, or do they become more empathetic and realize what it’s like for others around the world?
There are always people who are going to give regardless of how tight they are.
Sometimes I go to food drops, and I’ll see people in line, waiting for food to feed themselves, who will reach in their wallet and pull out a little card that says they’re a Feed A Child partner, which means they consistently give at least $10 a month. And here they are, in a food line!
I’ve had people say, “I’m on Social Security, but I still am one of your partners,” and that just grips your heart.
You’ll also find people who say, “Things are really bad, we really want to help,” and they’ll give $1,000, or $5,000, or something more substantial like that.
Then there are people who give when the sun is shining, but when it rains, they say, “Sorry, I can’t.” You find both kinds.
I encourage people to network. I tell them about one retired fellow who contacted us. He said, “Every morning, I go to a little coffee shop where I meet up with three other guys, and we just sit around and tell stories. One day I went in and told them I’d seen you on television, and that I thought we should send you some money.”
So the four guys pooled their money and sent me a check for $500.
I tell people, “You may be able give only $25, but if you have a job, talk to people at work. Talk to people at church. Connect to other people.”
There are so many ways you can give.
There’s a woman who every Christmas sends us the money she would have normally spent on presents for her relatives; it comes to something like $1,500. And instead of expensive presents, she gives every member of her extended family an empty bowl, with a message in it that says, “I gave a contribution to Feed The Children.”
Someone I know had a wedding and said on the invitations, “Don’t give us any gifts. Just make out a check to Feed The Children.”
In tough times, there are all kinds of ways you can give without dipping into your own resources. You just have to use your creativity.