Woman behind ‘Bob Boxes’ merits honor

By Joe Stumpe | July 1, 2021

Debi Kreutzman

Debi Kreutzman

The number of older residents served by the Kansas Food Bank is on the rise. A few years ago, about 7 percent of the people served by the food bank were seniors. Today, that figure is about twice as large.

“We have many seniors who are living on limited incomes that can’t make ends meet,” said Debi Kreutzman, community relations manager for the food bank, which serves 85 Kansas counties. “They may receive a 1.3 percent increase in Social Security but the cost of living has gone up triple that. And food prices right now. That kind of makes a perfect storm to where our seniors truly need that additional help.”

Kreutzman was honored for her work on senior hunger last month, receiving the 15th annual Irene Hart Award from the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging.

Among other things, Kreutzman developed the “Bob Box,” containers of shelf-stable foods that are distributed to older rural residents from locations other than traditional food pantries, which some people are reluctant to visit. They were named for and endorsed by former longtime U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

Kreutzman, a native of Marion, Kan., started working in the social services field 21 years ago as an employee of Positive Directions, a Wichita nonprofit focused on preventing sexually transmitted diseases that also operated its own food pantry. She moved to the Kansas Food Bank 12 year ago.

She soon realized that some older people who needed help the most were not asking for it.

“Seniors say, ‘Oh no, give it to somebody who needs it more than me.’”

Rather than ask for more food, they would often cut their meals in half, Kreutzman said. They also try to stretch their food budget by buying foods such as noodles, beans and rice that may fill them up but not provide all the nutrients they need.

“When you look at the food pyramid — five servings of fruits and veggies a day — they just don’t have the resources to be able to put healthy meals on their table.”

Partly as a result, the food bank has committed to distributing more fresh produce. In 2018, it distributed 11,769 pounds of fresh produce. Last year, that number was 15,566 pounds.

It adds a layer of difficulty, Kreutzman notes.

“It’s so perishable. You’ve got to really watch the timing on it and make sure the partner agency has the ability to get the product refrigerated.”

Kreutzman’s job often takes her around the state to work with those local food pantries and other organizations that distribute food from the Kansas Food Bank, which serves all but the northeast part of the state. It was while returning from Colby one day that she came up with the idea of the “Bob Box.”

“I kept hearing about how we had seniors who wouldn’t come to the pantry. Especially in our smaller communities, (where) everybody knows everybody. ‘June won’t go to the pantry because Mable runs it and she’s worried that somebody might see her there.’”

Then she thought of Dole — “a Kansas hero, somebody the older generation trusts and believes in. I thought, ‘What if we did a box named and endorsed by him?’”

When Kreutzman telephoned Dole and a woman answered, she was in for a surprise. 

“She said ‘Oh honey, this is Elizabeth (Dole). Just call him at his office.’ At that point, I just about fell out of  my chair.”

Dole not only endorsed the project, he donated $50,000 to kick it off in 2012.

The boxes contain foods such as cereal, tuna, meal kits and cans of low-sodium vegetables and no-sugar-added fruit. They’re usually distributed by county health departments. “Nurses tend to know who needs help,” Kreutzman said.

Kreutzman was just as shocked to receive the Hart award, named for a former longtime executive director of CPAAA.

“This is something that’s for our whole team. It takes all of us to make this happen.”