WFMJ Spearheads Campaign Against Hunger

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — News organizations often call attention to social problems and social ills. In the case of WFMJ-TV, the issue of widespread hunger uncovered through its reporting prompted its news staff and management to create “Project: Feed Our Valley.”

This year’s campaign, which kicked off Nov. 2, officially runs through Dec. 12, although news director Mona Alexander acknowledges it has grown from a month-long to a year-round effort.

The initiative originated from news reporting about nine years ago, Alexander recalls.

Following up on reports of children being absent from a city school, the WFMJ news team learned that the call-offs didn’t result from the flu (as they expected) but because the children were coming to school hungry, Alexander says.

“It just broke my heart,” she remarks.

The station researched the problem with staff at Second Harvest Food Bank in Youngstown. “They really educated us. They were the ones who told us about the working poor,” Alexander says. These people often work two or three jobs as they struggle to make ends meet but often come up short at the end of the month. “So the one thing you can kind of nip and tuck at is food,” she continues.

“We decided that we were going to report on that as a society concern in our area, and then it kind of rapidly developed in the station as we needed to do more than that,” she says.

“We were pleased that they recognized the need to communicate to the community the dire straits that many low-income people are finding themselves in,” says Michael Iberis, executive director of Second Harvest.

In addition to raising awareness of hunger, the station spearheads a drive to collect food and money to help Second Harvest buy food for distribution to poor individuals and families. Partners in the program are the Sparkle Markets chain, which early on provided a place for people to make donations and which itself donates $5,000 in food to Second Harvest.

Another major partner is the Cafaro Co., which matches up to $10,000 in funds raised at campaign events in November and December, Alexander says.

“It’s evolved quite a bit,” says Jack Stevenson, WFMJ marketing director, who oversees the program. An ongoing challenge is “trying to keep it fresh,” which is “one of the things that we look at doing every year,” he adds. Throughout the year, people contribute ideas as well as money to the program.

Staff throughout the station contribute to the effort, from the on-air anchors – the “primary worker bees [who] do the bulk of the work,” Stevenson says – to the art department, promotions staff and the “poor maintenance man” who delivers collection boxes and picks up the collected food.

This year the campaign is calling attention to the “young elderly,” Alexander says – people in their early 60s not yet eligible for full Medicare coverage.

To date, the campaign has collected 526,388 pounds of food and raised $516,969 for Second Harvest, Alexander reports.

Without the awareness the campaign has raised over eight years, the message regarding hunger in the Valley wouldn’t have been communicated nearly as effectively, Iberis says.

Editor’s Note: For more on our area’s philanthropic efforts, read the MidNovember edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.