A program to feed families that began in Rapid City has been such a hit that it’s offering 13,584 meals to parents and children in eight states.
The 12 Days of Pizza program selects families that receive coupons or punch cards for a dozen pizza or chicken meals from Pizza Ranch. The coupons can be redeemed through Jan. 15. Social workers, school counselors and elementary-school staff recommend the families to receive the meal coupons. A requirement is that every family chosen must have at least one elementary school-aged child.
Pizza Ranch and Black Hills Community Bank co-sponsor the 12 Days of Pizza in Rapid City, Sturgis, Spearfish and Deadwood.
The 12 Days of Pizza began in 2015 with 12 families at Robbinsdale Elementary School in Rapid City. The program is the brainchild of Sean Covel, producer of films that include “Napoleon Dynamite” and “The 12 Dogs of Christmas.”
Covel grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Deadwood. When a friend who is a teacher mentioned that at least half her elementary-school class was concerned about having enough to eat during Christmas vacation, Covel wanted to find a sustainable solution.
“That’s the time food insecurity hits families hardest,” Covel said. “This is the only time of year when schools don’t have a way to supply meals. School counselors and social workers have been the real drivers of this because they know those families best. They know which families would benefit the most from this.”
In 2015, Covel pitched the idea of a meal program to Black Hills Community Bank President Jack Lynass and Senior Vice President Shawn Kerns, who contacted Pizza Ranch franchise owners Steve Cronin and Terry Larsen.
They put together and launched the first year’s program in less than a day and fed 12 families the first year. By its second year, the 12 Days of Pizza provided 600 meals to families in the Black Hills. Kerns said the goal is to continue expanding the program into more schools.
“We gift coupons to the schools, and they handle dispersing them to kids and families. We’ve made it a point to not label it as a handout. We view it as, ‘You won this.' We want it to be a positive thing,” Kerns said.
The 12 Days of Pizza program name was inspired by “The 12 Dogs of Christmas” film — and by the child-friendly food.
“What would a 9-year-old eat every meal if they could? Pizza,” said Covel, noting that each family wins a package containing a DVD of “The 12 Dogs of Christmas” and 12 meals.
Every year, Black Hills Community Bank and Pizza Ranch split the cost of the meals. For the 2018-2019 12 Days of Pizza, the bank covers $8 of each meal, and some of the funds come from Black Hills Community Bank employees' Jeans Day donations.
“The stories you hear from teachers and the staff from Pizza Ranch, it’s definitely is filling a need and people are very grateful,” Kerns said. “The holidays can be tough and sometimes frightening for people. We’re excited and proud to be part of it.”
In the Black Hills, between 80 and 90 percent of the meal coupons are redeemed, Kerns and Cronin said. Pizza Ranch offers free delivery to the families. During the Christmas break and New Year, Pizza Ranch saw one of the highest meal coupon-redemption rates ever, Cronin said.
“Families are very appreciative. Last year, we even had one family come back. They wrote a note on their coupon about how touched they were. They were having a tough time and this meant the world to them. That’s just awesome to see the impact it’s having,” Cronin said.
In 2017, the program went viral and grew beyond the Black Hills. With the help of a promotional video Covel made, Cronin and Larsen pitched the 12 Days of Pizza to Pizza Ranch corporate headquarters.
“Things got a little crazy,” Covel said, and the program took off throughout the chain. Currently, 78 Pizza Ranch restaurants in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois are offering meals to 1,132 families, Cronin said.
Some Pizza Ranch locations partner with banks or businesses in their community to sponsor the 12 Days of Christmas; other Pizza Ranch locations sponsor the program entirely, Covel said.
“I see (the 12 Days of Pizza) getting bigger and bigger each year,” said Cronin, noting that Pizza Ranch has locations in 14 states. “It’s neat to see that it’s expanding like it is through the Midwest.”
Having a dozen meals provided during Christmas break benefits kids’ minds as well as their bodies. Covel said his sister, an elementary-school teacher in Sturgis, observed in her class that when children who aren’t eating well return from Christmas break, they struggle to learn. They require two or three weeks of consistent meals to help them get back in the habit of learning, he said.
“It’s been such a blessing for our families, particularly our single moms who are already struggling and need to be able to take advantage of every possible resource to keep their heads above water,” said Ginger Johnson, social worker for the Meade School District.
She helps select families who receive meal coupons. Often the families who get them have faced issues such as job loss, serious illness or other upheaval.
“Families say, ‘This was just like an extra blessing to our family this year. I really try hard to make sure coupons are going to families in need of them, and they really do appreciate that other people are going out of their way to give them a little boost,” Johnson said.
Covel credits the 12 Days of Pizza’s success to local people being willing to help one another. The 12 Days of Pizza is an ideal fit for Black Hills Community Bank and Pizza Ranch, which each have a corporate culture of giving back to their communities.
“One of the charter mandates of Pizza Ranch is to glorify God through contributions to the community,” Covel said. “That’s one of the reasons the 12 Days of Pizza has been able to move through the Pizza Ranch chain.
“This program works for one reason, and that’s that it happens at the community level. It’s a local Pizza Ranch with a local business handling a local program, and that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Covel said. “I lived in Los Angeles, and poverty is pervasive to the point that it almost becomes invisible. In a small town, nobody turns a blind eye to kids who are going hungry. All you need to do is find a way to address it and it can take off, and in this case it did.”