Per Diems Against Poverty looks to tackle hunger in America

by Todd Jones ([email protected]) 461 views 

They were partners in crime as kids.

Brittany Hodak and Jennifer Barker grew up about a mile apart in a small town just outside Fort Smith. The two were close enough in age to be sisters.

“When we were kids, she would make up business plans, and I would follow her lead,” Barker told me while visiting at TEDxUniversityofCentralArkansas. “We were always getting into something together.”

Even when the two ladies went separate ways in adulthood, they kept in touch. To them, their families are important.

“We always felt we would do something together some day,” Hodak said.

After getting her Bachelor of Arts from Oklahoma State, Barker handled various marketing roles for ABF Freight There, she learned the ins and outs of marketing management, but always felt she wanted to do something more “mission-oriented.” So, when an opportunity came to become the marketing coordinator for Union Christian Academy, she knew it was right.

“I took a pay cut, but it was really closer to what I wanted to do,” she said.

After becoming a mother, Barker and her husband decided she would stay home with the children. Even so, the desire to collaborate, to create, endured. That’s when Brittany came home for Thanksgiving in 2014. Hodak and Kim Kaupe, her ZinePak co-founder, had just finished filming an episode of Shark Tank.

“That’s all anyone wanted to talk about, but I couldn’t talk about it due to contract restraints,” she said.

Hodak just kept telling her family and friends about the new information she learned about hunger.

“I kept saying, ‘did you know 1 in 7 people are hungry, right here in America?'” Hodak said in her TEDxUniversityofCentralArkansas talk. “All people wanted to talk about was Shark Tank and all I wanted to talk about was hunger.”

When filming Shark Tank, Hodak explained, she received a call from the producer, on the third day of filming. They told her she needed to pick up her per diem used to pay for food while on location. Hodak explained she had forgotten while busy and either bought lunch herself or the producers provided her meals.

“Since I hadn’t used the per diem, I started looking for a charity where I could donate the money,” she said.

While searching on Google – which led her down a “rabbit hole” – she came across sobering information which informed her of the issues with hunger in the U.S. She also learned that hundreds of thousands of Americans regularly receive per diems as part of their jobs, including professional athletes, actors, corporate executives, and even lawmakers, but Hodak was unable to find a charity that took per diems to help feed people in this country as a mission.

“I literally couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I kept thinking, why are there hungry people in this country, and why is there not an organization who can use these per diems to help those who are hungry?”

Jennifer Barker (left) and Brittany Hodak
Jennifer Barker (left) and Brittany Hodak

Like any good entrepreneur, Hodak began to think of ways to meet this need, which led to her encounter with her cousin at Thanksgiving.

“Brittany and I were sitting next to each other with our husbands at our grandparents house having Thanksgiving dinner,” Barker explained. “I was asking her questions about Shark Tank, and all she wanted to talk about was the amazing idea she had for a charity that would fight domestic hunger that resulted from her appearance on the show.”

Hodak was persistent.

“She quickly explained to me about the per diems she received while filming the show and how she couldn’t quit thinking about how much good those funds could do to help the millions of Americans struggling with hunger,” said Barker.

Ever the entrepreneur, Hodak pitched the idea to her cousin.

“She then said, ‘I think we should start this charity together, and I think you’d be the perfect person to run it!’”

Barker said her husband agreed, “After a quick glance at my husband who said, he agreed with Brittany, I replied, ‘Absolutely! It’s my dream to work full-time for a cause that I truly care about and that can help others in my community!’”

Hodak and Barker visited over a period of months mapping out the idea for the organization, putting plans into place. However, because the story for the idea was tied so closely to Hodak’s experience in filming Shark Tank, the two had to hold off on any publicity.

“The month after our (ZinePak) appearance on Shark Tank aired, we filed for our articles of corporation,” Hodak explained. “It took us several months get our non-profit and other legal paperwork in place.”

The website went live in August of 2015 and the two began soliciting donations for Per Diems Against Poverty.

Barker spent time researching and trying to find out the best industries to approach for donations. The two decided to donate 100% of all per diems donated to Feeding America, an organization which provides funds to food banks across the country.

Because they decided to donate 100% to Feeding America, nothing was going to the day-to-day operations. So, the two social entrepreneurs have been self-funding the organization.

“Jennifer has been working tirelessly without pay for several months,” Hodak said. Jennifer’s husband has been working two full-time jobs to help their family helping free Barker to spearhead the Per Diems Against Poverty efforts.

Getting started, Barker had to play detective. She researched various industries that give per diems. At the top of her list were the professional athletic associations such as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball. Each of these leagues gives more than $100 per day in per diems to the players.

One of the first professional athletes to align with their cause was Curtis Granderson of the New York Mets. Their partnership with Granderson was recently highlighted on CBS’s This Morning (see video below).

Now that Per Diems Against Poverty is off the ground, the organization has a full calendar year to get in touch with all the major professional athletic organizations and begin helping feed more people. In addition, Per Diems Against Poverty is looking for funding to help pay for operation costs via corporate donations and grants from private foundations.

The year 2016 will be a pivotal year for the new organization.