Since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, food insecurity has increased exponentially, with long lines at food banks becoming an all-too-common sight across the United States.
During this challenging national food crisis, San Antonio-based Kiolbassa Smoked Meats doubled down on its commitment to the community to feed more people as part of its new initiative – Links of Love.
After rolling out its first program at the end of 2020, Kiolbassa’s Links of Love project pledged to donate 10,000 lbs of its new Links of Love sausage each month.
“We understand the value of what we produce, that the high-quality protein that you get from the food bank is oftentimes beans, or peanut butter,” said Wendy Stiles, director of community enrichment for Kiolbassa. “I think we have a feeling of responsibility, of sharing what we make.”
Michael Kiolbassa, president and chief executive officer of Kiolbassa Smoked Meats, feels strongly about the new donation program. Since the company started in 1949, Kiolbassa has always donated meat in times of need.
Before COVID-19, the company set up traditional ways of garnering food donations like fundraisers, recruiting Little League teams to get items or working with booster clubs. However, all those activities stopped in the spring of 2020. So, Kiolbassa talked with Stiles about how to help as food insecurity rose.
“Wendy and I were visiting, and I said, ‘how can we redirect this to something that can really give purpose?’” Kiolbassa said. “It just happened to be right after San Antonio was on the national news and the front page of the New York Times with a lot of cars at the food bank trying to get food, and we recognized that food insecurity has been magnified with COVID.”
After seeing the response needed in the area, the entire Kiolbassa team decided to come together to develop the new program. Kiolbassa then created the Links of Love pork sausage specifically to distribute to people in need of food.
When launching the Links of Love sausage, Kiolbassa explained that it is made with small batches like the rest of its products that are sold in stores throughout the United States.
“We can make it for a lot less. It’s high-quality ingredients, high-quality spices, and then the premium cuts of pork, but we can get a lot more bang for our buck using all pork,” Stiles said.
Kiolbassa continued, “When developing this program, it was very important to us that its recipients receive the same high-quality, delicious sausage that is available in stores. We realize that the people we serve are facing difficult challenges. We may be serving people on what could be the most difficult day of their lives. We hope that the food we are providing gives them a little happiness, encouragement and hope.”
The all-pork dinner sausage is a fully cooked product that’s easy to prepare.
“One of the beauties of our sausage that we found in responding to disasters is that it cooks quickly. Anybody can cook it,” Stiles said. “So, if you’re somebody who maybe wasn’t used to cooking, and here you are having to make meals for your family…if you have this in a box that you receive from the food bank, you’re able to cook it with ease.”
While working with the food committee for the San Antonio Food Bank for more than 10 years before COVID-19, Stiles learned about what was needed to get donations to where they were needed. She said she also learned what people with food insecurity really needed – a can of green beans and a box of crackers can’t really make a meal, she said.
“It isn’t just about having cereal or having a can of this or can of that…a center-of-the-plate protein is really what your meals are built around,” Stiles said.
Kiolbassa partnered with Mercy Chefs and Feeding America to get its products where they were needed most. Mercy Chefs serves chef-prepared meals for victims, volunteers and first responders in national emergencies and natural disasters. Feeding America is a network of more than 200 food banks, 60,000 food pantries and meal programs throughout the United States.
In the past, Kiolbassa worked with the Houston Food Bank, the Special Olympics and the March of Dimes to raise funds and donate meat products to those in need.
To help with logistics of distributing the product, the meat processor worked with its partner suppliers to get more donations.
The company has worked with Mercy Chefs since 2015, helping to respond to natural disasters.
Kiolbassa started its Links of Love distribution in Panama City, Fla., at the end of 2020 with Mercy Chefs. The town is still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Michael from 2018.
Before Links of Love, Kiolbassa’s community donations were just known about through word of mouth and served in areas that needed help in San Antonio and around the country. To help with its new initiative, Kiolbassa pushed its Links of Love message out on social media and branded the truck that travels to food banks and emergency sites with the campaign’s logo.
Michael Kiolbassa hopes to continue to build on this effort so there will always be food readily available when there’s a need.
“This is really core to our purpose of enriching lives,” he said. “That’s why we exist as a company, and this is a big part of it. We wanted to really build some structure and resources around this program so that we can grow even bigger in the future.”