2021 Good Neighbor Awards Winner
About 10 years ago, while helping his local Rotary Club pack lunches for low-income schoolchildren, REALTOR® Bob Bell got some food for thought from a fellow volunteer: “You can do more.”
Those simple words stayed with Bell, broker-owner of Mile Hi Property in Arvada, Colo., who says he sees himself as a servant to his community, helping families during vulnerable moments in their lives. Bell realized his friend was right—he could do more—when he learned just how widespread the need was for emergency food services. He talked to local teachers who shared heartbreaking stories of students whose only dependable meals were through the free lunch program at school. Often, they’d have little or nothing to eat at home over the weekends. These students, distracted and consumed by hunger, stand a higher chance of failing academically and suffering from depression and anxiety, which often leads to behavioral problems.
“If I can do it, trust me, anybody can do it. You just have to start, do one school—it’s one group of kids that will be better off.”
Bell, who had just welcomed his first grandchild, knew he had to act with greater purpose. In 2012, he launched Food for Thought Denver to expand his effort to provide food for underprivileged kids. Now every Friday, no matter the weather conditions, you’ll find Bell and about 350 volunteers meeting at three outdoor locations to pack food for more than 10,000 schoolchildren in Denver. To date, Food for Thought, which has raised about $2 million, has provided nearly 4 million meals. When you see a need in front of you, “you can’t turn it down and walk away,” Bell says.
Every Kid, Every School, Every Friday
He’s seen many well-intentioned volunteers give up when life gets in the way, so he vowed to keep plans for his nonprofit, which he drew up with family and friends, simple and manageable. Bell got a $30,000 grant from Arvada Rotary Club and launched Food for Thought with the motto “Feed a child. It’s simple.”
Bell and his volunteers are up at dawn every Friday to pack meals in assembly-line fashion and deliver “PowerSacks”—bags filled with 10–15 food items—to schools across Denver by lunchtime. The volunteers use six donated trucks to deliver the meals. Many students use the PowerSacks to feed other family members as well.
Food for Thought serves 72 Denver-area schools where 90% of students or higher qualify for free or reduced lunch. This means their family’s annual household income is less than $29,000. Rather than single out students who need food—which could potentially embarrass them—Bell provides a PowerSack to every child in the school. Extras are shared, redistributed, or donated to food pantries.
Tracy Towle, a special education teacher, has seen the difference the food makes to her students. “Bob didn’t just start a program; he immersed himself in our school,” she says. “He knows all of the teachers and students by name. The kids run up and hug him.” Towle adds that she’s seen a social shift and huge improvement in a sense of community in her classrooms and the school at large.
Zero Overhead, Zero Excuses
Volunteers for Food for Thought Denver shop for quantity but don’t neglect quality. While they aim to buy in bulk for cheap by partnering with local food pantries, volunteers are encouraged to shop like they would for their own families. They must consider students’ living situations: Some may not have a working stove or refrigerator at home, for example. Bell’s nonprofit has distributed 32,000 pounds of produce since 2013.
“Open your eyes, look around you, there is a school around you that needs help, it’s happening.”
Bell organizes an annual music and food fundraiser called the Rock-a-Belly Festival, which aims to raise $100,000 each year through ticket sales. “He has built an organization with absolutely no overhead,” says Vince DeRose, a member of Food for Thought Denver’s executive board. Even when COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible to host the festival in 2020, Bell spearheaded grant-writing efforts and continued supplying food to needy kids weekly throughout the pandemic.
“If you have enough impassioned people, it’s possible,” Bell says, adding that his volunteers have never missed a Friday food-packing event, even when the pandemic forced school closures. During that time, they would hand out PowerSacks under an overpass in the midst of the brutal Colorado winter. John Kilrow, a Food for Thought Denver volunteer for the last eight years, says Bell has created “something that is so hard to explain. You’re not just a volunteer but a member of a community. He is full of love, caring, and community—he is the most incredible person I have ever met.”
As Food for Thought Denver starts another busy school year, Bell encourages everyone in every area of the country to learns the needs of a nearby school. “Urban or rural, these issues are happening near you,” he says.