ORLANDO, Fla. — Can the solution to world hunger really be as simple as a lentil-rice casserole mix that costs 25 cents a meal? Can it help both a starving child in Kenya and a homeless student in Kissimmee, Fla.?
Don Campbell thinks so. And he has spent his life savings and the past two years working without a salary to prove it. Since launching the Orlando, Fla.-based charity Feeding Children Everywhere in 2010, his grass-roots organization has delivered more than 1.2 million meals around the globe, including a growing number to public school children in Florida.
“We’ve been able to make that quarter stretch really far,” he said en route to a Sarasota, Fla., radio station that wants to promote his cause throughout the Southeast. “We’ve grown so much so fast that there’s no way to explain it except divine intervention.”
A former building contractor and youth pastor, Campbell, 40, operates with a staff of 12 out of donated warehouse space. Here, the agency stores in bulk the ingredients of its simple but nutritious casserole mix: lentils, rice, dehydrated vegetables and mineral-rich Himalayan salt. The blend provides all the amino acids the human body needs.
“It’s probably a lot more nutritious than what most American children eat,” said Gloria Niec, executive director of the Celebration Foundation, which is helping to feed homeless students in Osceola County, Fla. “I made some myself and thought it was pretty good.”
Campbell has been cooking since age 10, when he became the man of the family. When he was 5, his father committed suicide. In the next five years, two younger brothers died — one of a heart defect, the other to crib death. The baby was born on Campbell’s 10th birthday.
“I just remember waking up to my mom screaming and looking down the hall and seeing this baby on the floor and rescuers trying to do CPR,” he said.
For his mother, the cumulative loss was devastating. She made sure the bills were paid, Campbell said, but emotionally she was empty. At times, there was either nothing to eat or nothing prepared to eat. Campbell started concocting recipes out of whatever he could find in the refrigerator. Cooking was his only therapy.
“I always figured one day I’d open a restaurant,” he said. “But I was a very lost and broken young man.”
He would struggle with drug and alcohol addiction in his 20s, costing him a professional soccer career, before beginning to turn his life around. And in 2005, after spending nearly two months in the hospital with a painful digestive tract infection and coming close to death, he experienced “a cosmic shift” in his faith.
He began to want to do something more with his life than run a roofing company. In the beginning, that meant volunteering and leading a youth group. But in January 2010, the massive earthquake in Haiti led him to abandon the for-profit world altogether.
At the time, he and his wife, Kristen, had just bought a new home and had three children of their own. But the scope of the disaster tugged at both of them. After volunteering for a Minnesota-based charity that sent food to Haiti, the couple decided to launch their own nonprofit operation using the entire $9,000 they could scrape together from their savings.
Initially, their focus was strictly global: Africa, South America, the Caribbean. But late last year, Campbell happened to catch an episode of the TV news magazine “60 Minutes” showing impoverished Central Florida children living in motels and vehicles.
“The children they showed living in a truck — that panel truck was right across the street from my post office,” Campbell said. “I had seen it every time I checked the mail. I thought, ‘We can do something great right here in our backyard.’ ”
Since January, the charity has reached out to help schools in Seminole, Orange, Osceola and Volusia counties as well as some in Tampa, where it recently opened a second office. But its rapid growth, a projected 1,000 percent this year over last, is not so much about a recipe for supper as it is a formula for empowerment.
“The feeding is really a byproduct of us empowering and mobilizing people to give back,” Campbell said. “Food is vital, but there are also hearts that are hungry to help.”
So hungry, in fact, that dozens of groups of college students, corporate employees, church-goers and other volunteers have lined up to work the charity’s production line, which can be set up virtually anywhere. Each of the four main ingredients is measured into a plastic bag, which is then weighed, sealed, labeled and placed in a cardboard box to await shipping.
“It is profound in its purity,” said Louis Kickhofel, principal at the Alliance Project, an Orlando executive coaching and consulting company. “I left there deeply moved and thanking them for giving a guy who works at a desk all day the opportunity to shoot over here and feel like I’m making a difference. An hour later, you leave and 1,000 meals are packed and ready to be loaded on a semi.”