(Editor’s note: This story was written by Roy Wenzl and first printed on May 31 in the Wichita Eagle and is being reprinted with permission from that publication. News Journal News Editor Mark White contributed information in this story.)
Virginia White by 1983 had served for years as a political operative, working mostly for Republican congressional candidates in Kentucky. But she’d also run a food bank there.
A small group of Wichita aviation chiefs and other businessmen asked her to give hungry children and families a helping hand.
What she created was a charity that now gives 12.5 million pounds of food a year to Kansans in need.
Mrs. White, 71, the founding director of the Kansas Food Bank Warehouse, died Sunday, May 29 at her home in Williamsburg.
John Moore, a former lieutenant governor and one of the Food Bank founders, said they wanted to create the charity, but had no clue about how.
“There were five of us founders, and four of us didn’t even know how to spell it,” Moore said two days after her death. “Virginia put it all together, starting from complete scratch, and created one of the great things ever created in Kansas. Very few people have ever had the impact on people that she created.”
In the first year, the Kansas Food Bank under Mrs. White distributed what everyone involved thought was an impressive 420,000 pounds of food to needy Wichitans and Kansans, said Brian Walker, the current director.
By the time Mrs. White retired 20 years later, in 2003, the Kansas Food Bank was giving 5 million pounds a year.
Last year, the Food Bank gave out 12.5 million pounds, Walker said. Tens of thousands of hungry children and families in 85 Kansas counties, get food to tide them over during hard times.
Lionel Alford, a senior vice president of Boeing Co., proposed the food bank in 1983. At that time, Moore said, the economy was booming, but Alford told people there were needy people, “out of a job for no fault of their own.”
The early 1980s was a time in Wichita when the economy was booming and when executives from Cessna Aircraft like Moore were glad to pair up with leaders like Alford from Boeing and do large-scale projects involving community good.
Mrs. White had nothing to start with other than encouragement from board members of the new charity, Moore said.
Alford had seen how a food bank operated in Washington, D.C., and described the bare outlines of how such a charity could work. But it was Mrs. White who pulled together people from all over Wichita.
“She pulled together clergy and business people and aviation people like myself, and got them all to work together,” Moore said.
“She was always an advocate for those who needed a helping hand,” said Walker, who worked under Mrs. White for several years before succeeding her as Food Bank director in 2004.
“She told me you had to be in this work for the right reasons – because you want to help people, because you want to advocate for the poor,” Walker said. ” ‘It’s not about you,’ she said. ‘It’s about the people we serve.’ ”
Mrs. White herself said many of the innovative ideas employed by the Food Bank were proposed by Alford. At first, the idea was that food companies could donate their damaged boxes and cartons of food to the Food Bank instead of throwing this food away.
Eventually, the Food Bank, as it does today under Walker, multiplies the money it receives from donors to maximize how much food it can buy to give to the poor.
“You can give us donated food, but if you give money, we can purchase food a lot cheaper than if you buy it yourself at a grocery store,” Walker said. “We can buy two truckload quantities of food as opposed to getting two cans at a time.”
Alford’s passion for helping the poor led him to call her three times every day with suggestions, Mrs. White said in a 2000 newspaper interview. Alford told her to use the Food Bank “in every way short of breaking the law,” to help those in poverty, Mrs. White said.
“Don’t call them poor people,” Mrs. White quoted Alford as saying.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because that word implies that they are broken in spirit,” Alford said. “Most of them aren’t.”
Most people live in poverty, he told her, either because of bad luck or because they hadn’t been given the gifts that the well-to-do had been given. Or they had illnesses in the family that drained family finances because of medical costs.
Alford’s insistence that most of the poor were not at fault for their poverty was not a belief shared by many politicians, including Republican Congressional candidates she used to work for, Mrs. White said at the time. It irritated her.
“There seems to be a general assumption that the good economy and welfare reform took care of everything,” Mrs. White said in that 2000 interview.
“She was a good, special, personal friend who left a mark in Kansas that few other people can claim,” Moore said.
“I just want to say goodbye to a good friend.”
In addition to founding the food bank, Mrs. White was the first and only female president of the Wichita Petroleum Club. She served on the board of directors of Women Studies at Wichita State University. She was also a former staffer to former US Senator and 1996 GOP Presidential Candidate Robert Dole.
After her retirement, Mrs. White moved back to Williamsburg where she took care of her mother for 10 years.
Last year she moved back to Wichita to live with her daughter, Jennifer Lee White.
Mrs. White is survived by one son, Michael Campbell and fiancé, Kelley Ballard, of Williamsburg, and one daughter, Jennifer White.
A funeral mass was held for Mrs. White on Thursday, June 2, at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Williamsburg. She was laid to rest in the Richardson Cemetery.
Condolences can be made to the family at the Ellison Funeral Home’s website, www.ellisonfh.com, in Williamsburg.