words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy Per Diems Against Poverty
First cousins Jennifer Barker and Brittany Hodak, only ten months apart in age, grew up in Roland, Oklahoma, a border town six miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas. When they were kids, there were only about 1,500 people living in their hometown, and not a lot to do. But that didn’t matter. As long as they were together, they were happy.
One of the things Jennifer loved was that Brittany was an “idea addict.” When they stayed over at each other’s houses—which was often, since they lived only two miles apart—they’d brainstorm, volleying ideas back and forth, and planning their future. They wanted to be in business with each other one day. And so they drew up pretend documents for pretend companies that seemed so real they could almost see the slick cars they’d drive to work, and the tall office buildings they’d one day occupy.
We’re fighting for the day when no American goes hungry.
-Jennifer Barker and Brittany Hodak
For Brittany, now thirty-two years old, that meant New York City, specifically Manhattan. That’s where she lives and works, at ZinePak, an entertainment marketing company she co-founded with Kim Kaupe that has clients like Brad Paisley, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry. In 2014, Brittany even made it to the TV show, Shark Tank, and her segment aired in March 2015.
By that time, Jennifer, now thirty-one years old, was living in Fort Smith, where she’d worked in business administration and public relations before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She was cheering Brittany on, staying in touch with her for the three days Brittany was in Los Angeles taping her segment of Shark Tank.
One of the perks of being on the show was the per diem (an allowance for meals) that she received daily. She certainly couldn’t spend all that money on food, which was approximately $200, and that fact tripped a wire in her brain. If she couldn’t use all the money she was given, what were other people doing with their per diems?
Since sports teams and Screen Actors Guild contracts routinely include per diems, Brittany wondered if there might be a way to tap into those funds for others in need. She’d had months to think about this when she came back home for Thanksgiving the same year. And during this holiday devoted almost exclusively to food, she and Jennifer talked for hours.
As they brainstormed, their excitement grew. They checked to see if there was a charity utilizing per diems, but couldn’t find one. They kept bringing up the great need in the United States, all those people who went to bed hungry. All those children who woke up without food in their cupboards.
It seemed to them that they could be part of the answer. All they’d need to do was find a way to connect with the right people, lay out a detailed plan, and hold tight to the belief that when given the chance, most of us are eager to be generous.
That belief led to the creation of Brittany and Jennifer’s non-profit, Per Diems Against Poverty. They teamed up with Feeding America, whose network of food banks provides service to 46.5 million people in need across the United States, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors.
It didn’t matter that Jennifer and Brittany lived nearly 1,400 miles apart. The two knew each other so well that working long distance didn’t ruffle one feather. Brittany already had great contacts because of her work in the entertainment industry, and Jennifer, who loves research, felt at home gathering information on whom to contact once their initial list of potential donors was completed.
With that part of the work done, Jennifer started making phone calls. She laughs when she talks about the nerve it takes to pick up the phone and ask for something from someone you’ve never met. But here’s the thing about Jennifer. She’s incredibly engaging, and she’s equally convincing. “People tell me I come across as enthusiastic,” Jennifer says. “I didn’t really see that until I saw myself on TV.”
What she’s talking about is a report CBS This Morning did on Per Diems Against Poverty, which aired in March. In it, Brittany and Jennifer described how they started, and the amazing things that have happened since.
Like meeting Curtis Granderson, an outfielder for the New York Mets. When he heard about the charity, he signed on without one reservation, giving his ten thousand dollars in per diems to their cause, which equals 110,000 meals. They were overwhelmed by his generosity; he even asked if he could overnight a check to them, and if he could help spread the word.
Since that time, the cousins have also met with movers and shakers in Hollywood, and one production company with names so big they’re recognized across the world (Jennifer and Brittany are not allowed to disclose this information just yet). They have agreed to participate in Per Diems Against Poverty. And that company has three films in the works.
To date, the charity has raised $150,000 for the nation’s hungry. It is such a brilliant plan, and so perfectly executed by these two, it seems as if it might be their calling. In the CBS interview, Brittany said that after her stint on Shark Tank, she’d go to sleep and wake up thinking about how to make this idea work. She said it was the closest she’d ever come to being driven by a higher power.
As for Jennifer, she’d been praying for a way to make a difference. When Brittany’s idea surfaced, she knew she’d found her purpose.
Although, it’s not easy. Every cent donated goes to the charity. And Jennifer is working approximately sixty hours a week, from home, mostly when the kids are asleep, something she says wouldn’t be possible without her husband, who is her greatest support and biggest fan. Brittany is equally as busy, working in Manhattan and making sure Per Diems Against Poverty continues to flourish.
As Jennifer talks about the strides they’ve made, she is all but buzzing with excitement. She smiles, nearly non-stop, and she looks a bit like a pixie: thin, and small, and beautiful.
Per Diems Against Poverty has been a godsend. It is easy to ignore the problem of hunger if you’re not confronted with it, if you have no personal experience. But hunger is everywhere, and the rates for food insecurity in Arkansas are significantly higher than the national average.
Jennifer praises the River Valley Food Bank, a member of Feed America, for all they do. Last fall, just after she’d held a food drive for them, a friend reached out to her to tell her about his relative who had fallen on hard times due to an injury that forced her to miss work for an extended time.
The woman in question had small children in the home. As Jennifer listened, her heart broke. The following morning, as soon as church was dismissed, Jennifer took her two boxes of food.
“When she saw the food, she broke down in tears,” Jennifer says. “She said, ‘You have no idea what this means to us. I know it seems like a small thing, but this has changed the next week for my family. There’s no way we could afford this much food, even in a month.'”
Jennifer pauses and then says, “Things we take for granted, like going to get milk and bread at the store, are a luxury for other people. That was my first one-on-one interaction, and I’ll tell you, if that one experience was all the difference we made as a non-profit, that would be enough, just seeing that woman’s face, hugging her, and knowing that we helped.”
The difference Jennifer and Brittany are making is monumental. Because of their ties with Feed America, one dollar buys eleven meals, and by the end of this year, Per Diems Against Poverty plans to provide 10 million meals.
She turns the conversation once again to her cousin and friend, Brittany. Jennifer knew when they were kids that Brittany was destined for great things. Her mind was always spinning with ideas, with creative genius, but it was Brittany’s heart that Jennifer adored even more. Behind all that innovation, Jennifer says, was so much love, such a bright, shining light. And because of that, so much goodness came into the world. Because of that, people who wouldn’t have had meals today are eating healthy food that will help restore their bodies. That will bring them hope again. And that’s the thought that races through Jennifer’s mind every time she grows weary, when her household is quiet, and she’s working late into the night. And that, she says, makes it all worthwhile.
Anyone can donate to Per Diems Against Poverty. To find out how, visit perdiemsagainstpoverty.org