Sam Silverstein is a former writer-producer for the National Association of REALTORS® based in Washington, D.C.
An End to Weekend Hunger
REALTOR® Jeremy Lichtenstein launched a system to enable thousands of low-income kids to bring home food for their families.
August 30, 2018
When REALTOR® Jeremy Lichtenstein realized that thousands of schoolchildren regularly went hungry over the weekend in the largely affluent suburban community where he helps people buy million-dollar–plus homes, the Montgomery County, Md., real estate salesperson saw an opportunity to act.
Lichtenstein, an agent with RE/MAX Realty Services in Bethesda, Md., attributes his real estate success to running a lean business—and drew on that experience to devise a sharply focused plan to buy nutritious, nonperishable food in bulk and deliver it to schools for distribution to students in need to take home. “I’m not a rocket scientist, but I can figure this stuff out,” says Lichtenstein, who has worked in real estate for more than 30 years and operated a landscaping business before that. “Efficiency is the best policy. When you’re efficient, you can get so much more done.”
Starting Small, Growing Fast
The idea took flight in 2012, when Lichtenstein began purchasing nutritious staples at Walmart and delivering the food to Cedar Grove Elementary School in Germantown, Md. The food went home with 37 children over the weekend.
The nonprofit operation, which Lichtenstein dubbed KIND (Kids In Need Distributors), has grown rapidly. During the last school year, KIND provided weekend food to nearly 2,000 children at 25 Montgomery County elementary and middle schools every week. The program also provides food to children who attend summer school. Under Lichtenstein’s leadership, KIND has raised over $1 million and provided more than 1 million meals since its inception.
KIND is dedicated to plugging a gaping hole in the federal program that provides free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch to children from low-income families: While the program feeds kids when they are at school, it doesn’t address hunger that arises when they go home. The problem deepens when school is closed. “We see such a difference in kids when they get food,” because children who are hungry can have difficulty concentrating on schoolwork, says Kelitah Armstrong, community school coordinator at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md, one of the schools that KIND serves.
“Every Saturday I wake up knowing I’m helping 2,000 families. It completely motivates me.”—Jeremy Lichtenstein
Armstrong says food insecurity is so acute at her school that she tries to have snacks on hand for kids who ask her for something to eat during the day. “If I can make sure that [even] one kid is satiated,” she says. “I’m doing a service for their whole class.”
The majority of students who attend Highland Elementary are eligible for federally subsidized meals. About 175 children at the school received food from KIND during the last school year, and that number will grow to 200 this year, Armstrong says.
The children need the food KIND provides so badly that they are not embarrassed about picking it up, Armstrong adds. “The kids notice if their mom isn’t able to buy food, and they know they’re doing their duty to bring home the food. I think that knowing they’ll get the bag of food [every week] takes away the worry.”
Keeping a Sharp Focus
Lichtenstein manages KIND from the homey one-room office in Bethesda, Md., that is also the base for his real estate business. His real estate staff provides administrative support to the organization at his personal expense. “I [help] make a lot of wealthy people wealthier, so I wanted to make a difference in my community” in another way, he says.
KIND buys all the food it distributes to the schools it serves. Lichtenstein says this model enables the organization to maintain a reliable supply chain and stay focused on what it does best: delivering healthy, satisfying foods like granola bars, applesauce, and beans to schools from the Costco warehouse in Wheaton, Md.
The organization relies on donations from individuals and grant funds from Montgomery County to pay for the food. Dozens of volunteers recruited by Lichtenstein pick up the food from Costco one Wednesday morning every six weeks and use their own vehicles to transport it to the schools the program serves.
KIND’s order is so large that several Costco staff members come in early to set aside the food that each school will receive, says Debbie Ross, marketing and membership manager for the store. KIND volunteers simply have to load it into their vehicles—and they’re on their way before the warehouse opens to the public. “It’s down to a science,” says Ross.
The organization depends on school staff members to identify students who need the food KIND provides. Staff, parents, and other volunteers at each school divide the food into bags, and teachers place the packages into each child’s backpack.
Hunger: Hiding in Plain Sight
KIND is an invaluable community resource because it provides food to students when they are beyond the reach of school-based nutrition programs, says Kathy Lazor, director of the Department of Materials Management for Montgomery County Public Schools. Lazor serves as the liaison between the school system and three nonprofit organizations, including KIND, that provide food to needy students.
About 14 percent of children who live in Montgomery County—a community of about 1 million people where the median household income is among the highest in the U.S.—are food--insecure, according to the county government. “People don’t think we have a huge need in our community,” Lazor says, “but we have low-income students everywhere, and they need assistance.”
One factor behind KIND’s success is Lichtenstein’s ability to organize people around a cause, says Mark Butterfield, broker-owner of the RE/MAX office where Lichtenstein works and one of KIND’s more than 140 volunteers. “He has an impact on people and makes them want to give back,” Butterfield adds.
Lichtenstein reaches out beyond real estate to engage his whole sphere of influence in KIND. “Jeremy attracts good people, and they spread the word,” says Russell Lacey, a KIND volunteer who met Lichtenstein through the Rotary International chapter they both belong to. Members of the club were so eager to support KIND that they changed their meeting day to make time to help deliver food, says Lacey.
Lichtenstein hopes real estate professionals across the United States will replicate what KIND does. “I want to get hundreds of people doing this. It’s so easy,” he says.. “They’re going to catch the fever, and at the end of the day they’re going to feel much better about themselves.”