Good Neighbor James T. Elcock: Saving Lives, One Meal at a Time

"I vowed to do something about hunger."

James T. Elcock will never forget two startling encounters he had with local children while he was serving in the Vietnam War. One child was scarred by napalm and missing an arm and leg, begging him for something to eat. The other child pointed an M-16 rifle at Elcock’s head and demanded money for food.

"When I returned home, I vowed to do something about hunger," says Elcock. He became a banker, then a real estate broker, but he never forgot the need. "Seeing someone starving is as heartbreaking as losing a loved one. They look like the walking dead."

Five years ago, in a moment of bashert—or destiny, according to the Yiddish expression—the right opportunity surfaced, says Elcock, who is African American and was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by a mother who practices Judaism. Elcock was attending a national Kiwanis Club convention and met Richard Proudfit. Proudfit had developed an inexpensive, nutritious, and easy-to-prepare food for starving people. He was attending the Kiwanis gathering to line up nonprofit packaging and distribution partners for his 100 percent volunteer operation, Kids Against Hunger, a Minnesota-based organization that involves children in packaging the food for others.

Elcock vividly recalls the meeting. "He was sitting alone in his booth, looking sad. I went over to cheer him up. ‘Somebody will come along,’ I said. He told me about his food, a soy-rice mixture with dehydrated vegetables, chicken, fat, salt, and 21 essential vitamins and minerals." It’s prepared with boiling water and costs only 23 cents per meal.

The Mission Begins

Elcock signed on with the same entrepreneurial determination he summoned when he founded Elcock Properties in St. Charles, Mo., in 1986 after another brokerage wouldn’t let him handle commercial listings. He set up a Missouri satellite of Kids Against Hunger and bought his first ingredients with $3,800 of his funds and $1,200 from Kiwanis. At the time, he didn’t know where he would send the food.

He didn’t have to wonder long. Rudolf "Rudy" C. Schaser, executive director of With God’s Little Ones, a St. Louis–based organization that supports disadvantaged children internationally, called Elcock one month later asking for clothing donations. "I explained all I could offer was food," Elcock says. Again, bashert. Schaser replied, "Food is what we really need."

Since then they have worked together to send food to Uganda, Nicaragua, and the Navajo nation in New Mexico.

Hunger Lurks Everywhere

But it’s by recognizing the great local need that Elcock has set his satellite operation apart. "The local community needs to be an important part," he says. He distributes food equally to foreign partners, disaster-stricken areas, and St. Louis–area food pantries.

When a flood destroyed Charlie Lane’s two-bedroom St. Louis home, Lane, 69, struggled to make mortgage payments and also pay rent for temporary quarters. He didn’t know how he’d feed his family of six. "Food stamps go only so far. It was a struggle to say the least," Lane says.

At his local food pantry, Lane read the Kids Against Hunger packaging. "I figured if it could help those in other countries when a disaster strikes, why not us?" says Lane.

Debra Hall, 50, ate it several times a week for three years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and could not work. "We had no money, and I had to feed my son," says Hall. "Sometimes we added chicken, but often we only could afford to eat it plain."

Elcock’s can-do spirit and military precision ensure that meals—almost 550,000 so far this year—are distributed to those most needy. He has rallied more than 3,000 volunteers to attend packing events. Volunteers from churches, schools, even scout troops set up assembly lines to mix the soy mixture with rice, weigh contents to an exact 13.8 ounces for six servings, seal it in bags, and place bags in boxes to guarantee a three-year shelf life.

He encourages competition. "If one group assembles 10 boxes, I give another a higher goal," he says. And he urges parents to volunteer alongside children to strengthen their bond.

When natural disasters strike, this well-oiled machine can quickly swing into motion. After the earthquake hit Haiti last January, Elcock sent 285,000 meals from his warehouse to Florida for the U.S. Navy to ship to Haiti. He also sent meals to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Elcock’s wife and business partner, Helene-Marie "Mimi" R. Elcock, e-pro, gri, may be his biggest fan: "His heart is so big. We’ve been in grocery lines where he’s paid for food for those behind us because he sensed they didn’t have much. He taught me our job is to help others. ‘This is what we do,’ he says. And he does."

James T. Elcock, e-PRO
Elcock Properties
St. Charles, Mo.

Kids Against Hunger