Military Knights in Utah deliver thousands of pounds of groceries each year to combat hunger
By Marie Mischel
Fighter jets and other military aircraft zooming over breathtaking natural landscapes are a daily spectacle at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah.
Much less visible — indeed, virtually hidden from sight — are the hundreds of families in communities adjacent to the base that struggle daily with food insecurity.
“It shocked us how big the need is right here in Utah, in a very metropolitan area,” said Stacey Yeager, grand knight of Deacon Douglas R. Sliger Council 16127 on the base. “When you go to the food pantries and see the need, it’s a kind of awakening.”
Those pantry shelves have been much fuller the last seven years thanks to the efforts of Council 16127 and its participation in the Knights of Columbus Food for Families program. Since 2015, the Knights at Hill AFB have coordinated weekly pickups from the base commissary, transporting large quantities of donated groceries to charities in the Ogden area. The council also organizes food drives several times a year at the base’s chapel.
In 2022, Council 16127, assisted by several other nearby councils, delivered about 17,000 pounds of food to local pantries, bringing their total since the program began to more than 91 tons. The families helped by their work are harder to quantify, but the thought of them keeps the Knights motivated.
“Everybody thinks the base community makes enough money to cover [expenses],” explained Yeager, who served in the Air Force for 20 years and retired in 2019. “But you may have a young airman [with] a single-income household, four or five kids. And they may be struggling.”
“This initiative is all about trying to eliminate that fear of not having food,” said Jim Hiatt, a council member and Air Force veteran who has helped with the deliveries for years. “It’s about giving people that reassurance that somebody’s out there, and they’re going to be OK.”
FOOD FOR FAMILIES
The second-largest U.S. Air Force base by population and geographic size, Hill is home to the 75th Air Base Wing, with more than 22,000 military and civilian employees. Catholics are well represented, served on base by Christ Prince of Peace Catholic Community, commonly referred to as “the parish.” Deacon Douglas R. Sliger Council 16127 was established there in 2015.
“When the council was chartered, we all were looking for things we could do to help the community to live up to our responsibility as Catholic men of the parish and members of the Order,” said Al Gibson, a charter member and past grand knight who has worked for the Defense Department for decades. He suggested a Thanksgiving food drive, and it became one of the council’s first big projects.
About the same time, a parishioner who worked at the base commissary approached the Knights with a request. Food at the commissary that was reaching its expiration date was being discarded; the parishioner asked whether the Knights could arrange to have it donated. Yeager, then the council’s financial secretary, brought the matter up at the next council meeting.
“A couple of our Knights then took off with it and got in contact with [the base chaplain] and the commissary staff,” Yeager recalled. “And we’ve been running with it ever since.”
Every week the commissary sets aside the donations, which Knights and family members pick up and deliver to local food pantries.
At first, only Council 16127 handled the donations. However, the pickup and deliveries must be done during business hours, and it became difficult to find volunteers each week who could take time off work. So the Knights asked other local councils if any of their members had access to the base and wanted to help. Now Knights from Ogden Council 777 and St. Rose of Lima Council 6010 in Layton also participate.
The Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank, operated by Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah, is one of the five organizations that receive donations from the Knights’ commissary run. It also receives all the food collected by the council’s parish drives, which bring in between 650 and 1,500 pounds several times a year.
“[Our work] couldn’t be done without the generosity and support of community members like the Knights of Columbus,” said Randy Chappell, director of basic needs at CCS. “Every act of kindness and assistance truly makes a difference for those experiencing hunger in our community.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Yeager hopes that other councils looking to start or build Food for Families projects will contact stores in their area to see if they are willing to donate items nearing their expiration.
“Grocery stores all over the world have the same situation,” he said. “They have food that is going to go bad but could still be used. There’s a lot more food that can be delivered out to needy folks.”
For councils conducting food drives, community engagement and expressions of gratitude are essential, according to Gibson.
“The critical thing, in my opinion, is after it is done, you always put in the bulletin how much the collection was,” he explained. “And I stand up before Mass and say, “Thank you.’ People don’t want money, they don’t want awards, but they like when you say, “Thank you.’”
In fact, every time Gibson participates in an activity with the Knights, he says a prayer of gratitude on the way home.
“I say, “Thank you, God, for allowing me to serve your people,’” he said. “That’s what I take from it; I take the satisfaction that we are feeding the poor, we are taking care of his most vulnerable, and it gives me great joy.”
The virtue of patriotism, Gibson added, involves “taking care of your fellow Americans, taking care of those who have less.”
Yeager and Hiatt feel a similar satisfaction to be serving others as part of something bigger than themselves, just as they did in the Air Force.
“We always say one person can make a difference,” Hiatt said. “But two people, three people, an organization — you can make a huge difference.”
Yeager considered volunteering in the parish as a lector or religious education teacher after retiring from the Air Force, but he didn’t find what he was looking for until he joined the Knights. He was especially drawn to the Order’s four principles, rooted in a common faith. Now he is district deputy of District #10 as well as grand knight of Council 16127.
“The military was my brotherhood for 20 years. When I retired, I wasn’t in a good place,” Yeager said. “The Knights brought me back into that. I’m doing something for someone else. That’s the reason why I joined the military. I want to be out there protecting, taking care of people, helping people out. And when I retired, I lost that. Now as a Knight, I can do it, just in a different role.”
MARIE MISCHEL is editor of the Intermountain Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.