Millions of Meals for Children, One Simple Principle

REALTORS® Jeremy Lichtenstein and Bob Bell, who live thousands of miles apart, provide essential weekend food to schoolchildren.

When you know that tens of thousands of children don’t have enough food at home on the weekends, you go to any length to save them from hunger. It’s that kind of hardcore commitment that has driven REALTORS® Jeremy Lichtenstein and Bob Bell, in separate efforts thousands of miles apart, to collectively deliver 10 million meals to underprivileged kids over the last decade.

“Kids are fed hot lunch and breakfast at school, but when they go home on Friday, some don't eat. They’re knocking on their teacher's door looking for a granola bar or an apple to take home,” says Bell. “I heard that kids are hungry and thought that’s utter B.S.

“It’s in my backyard and areas where I live and breathe, and where I operate my business,” Bell adds. “These kids are right literally under my nose, and that’s not acceptable in my community.”

Winning their Good Neighbor Awards in 2018 and 2021 respectively, Bell, broker-owner of Mile Hi Property in Denver, and Lichtenstein, a real estate practitioner with RE/MAX Realty Services in Bethesda, Md., reached astounding rates of growth with their nonprofit organizations.

Millions of Pounds of Food Donated

Bell’s Food For Thought Denver serves 75 schools, providing 36,000 monthly food bags to 26,000 children and their families. The organization started in 2012 with two schools that each had 600 students. Ninety-five percent of the students received free or reduced lunch, and their family’s annual income was below $30,000. Every single Friday, more than 250 volunteers pack PowerSacks with 10–15 items that feed a family of four for two meals.

“When I met with Bob, I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to serve every Denver public school,’ and I kind of smiled because that's a very lofty goal and very aspirational,” says Cindy Mitchell, vice president of programs at Denver’s Food Bank of The Rockies. “But through the years of partnership, he held true to what his goal was, and he's still growing. He will not be satisfied until he can ensure all food-insecure kids have nutrition over the weekend.”

Meanwhile, Lichtenstein launched the nonprofit Kids In Need Distributors in 2012, feeding 37 kids at one school to start. Today, the organization serves 31 schools and provides grocery store gift cards, which can be used to buy fresh produce and meat, or a “SmartSack” with nonperishable foods for 3,400 kids to take home every week (including summer school). Since 2020, 150 volunteers have helped distribute more than $1 million in gift cards so families can purchase food.

“I found out one-third of our [county’s] kids were on a free or reduced meal plan, which equated to about 55,000 kids [in 2012],” Lichtenstein says of the children in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. “I didn't mean to grow this big this fast. It was the need.”

COVID Couldn’t Conquer These Causes

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for food deepened at the same time that schools closed, making KIND’s mission much more complicated. Vicmarie Arocho, community school liaison at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., says KIND’s shift to gift cards was “hugely helpful, not just for our community's health but this was a great way for us to connect with and keep an eye out for our families during such a hard time.”

Solving the puzzle of COVID while meeting the increased need during food shortages and lack of in-person school was “the hardest thing we ever did,” Lichtenstein says. “I did not want to just stop. We reached into our pockets and savings to purchase gift cards. It all worked out, but it was a true learning experience.”

Never missing a delivery day, Bell’s similar passion, even during COVID, stems from the importance of school as a safety net for children. “When they get to school, it's warm. They get a hug. They get told they're important. They get fed. And when COVID came, [the response was to] close the schools, give the kids a laptop, and say, ‘Go home,’” he explains. “To a kid who doesn't have a home and doesn't have internet or doesn't have the language of choice, now you don’t get to eat either. We were intensely motivated to get as much food as we could as close to the kids as we could.”

That push to continue also created memorable moments of joy. “I had moms text me, ‘Thank you so much for the bag. It was so lovely to receive microwaveable popcorn, and we sat down as a family to enjoy the popcorn with our movie,’” explains Arocho. “And the little boy who turned to his dad and said, ‘I can finally buy a Pop-Tart.’”

Good Neighbors Forever Bringing in Support

“You can’t unring the bell. You can't go home on Friday afternoon and pretend hunger doesn't exist,” explains Bell. At the food packing events, “you can touch it and feel it and see the kids and know your morning's work is going home that day—not a month from today, not a year—that day.”

The effectiveness of the organizations, and the visibility from the Good Neighbor Award, has inspired other brokers, sales agents, title companies, home inspectors and even clients to volunteer. Lichtenstein says it’s about being part of something bigger than himself, a cause that drives involvement and colossal community support.

“Since receiving the Good Neighbor Award, it's amazing how much the REALTOR® community has infiltrated Food For Thought. REALTORS® tend to be servants by nature. It's what we do,” says Bell. “The simple fact that the profession allows great flexibility of time and talent.

“REALTORS® are tremendously built with heart and are servant-led, servant-oriented people. So those ingredients can open a lot of doors.”

Don’t be afraid to put both feet on the gas with volunteering or starting a nonprofit, Bell adds, “because it’s literally changed my life. I can't imagine what I did with my life before I had Food For Thought. People ask me, ‘How in the world can you fit this in?’ And all I can say is, ‘I must've been wasting a hell of a lot of time, because my business hasn't suffered.’ In fact, it's grown.”

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