Solving holiday hunger one slice at a time

What began as a small, local project to feed 48 elementary students over the Christmas break has blossomed. The 12 Days of Pizza initiative, having just completed its third year, provided meals to 250 families throughout the country. Pioneer file photo

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DEADWOOD — The 12 Days of Pizza initiative, started by local Hollywood producer Sean Covel, for families in need during the holiday season again grew exponentially in 2020, serving up a piece of the benevolent pizza pie to thousands in need across the region and now, the nation.  

Two years ago, the 12 Days of Pizza project provided 48 local elementary school-aged children and their families with consistent meals over Christmas break.

Just finishing up its third year, the program supported more than 250 families in every corner of the country by supplying 3,000 meals and access to another 12,000 meals across the nation.

While Covel credits area businesses with teaming up to take care of their own, it is he who created the program to initially address the needs of a dozen families in Rapid City in 2018.

“In year two, it expanded to Sturgis, Spearfish, Lead, and Deadwood. That included 48 families,” Covel said.

This year, he and other project principals hoped the 12 Days project could sponsor 100 families by providing 1,200 meals.

“But things got bigger. A lot bigger,” Covel said. “Word of the project spread through the Pizza Ranch chain and the 12 Days of Pizza ended up providing just over 8,000 meals.”

In 2020, the 12 Days of Pizza supplied 12,000 meals in cities all across South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and is continuing to grow nationally.  

“This year, a jaw-dropping expansion of the program happened here, right where it started,” Covel said. “Black Hills Community Bank decided to expand to sponsoring families in every elementary school in Rapid (City), as well as families in the hills.  200 families will be receiving 2,400 meals.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, other sponsors reached out, as well, including: Sturgis Police Department, Summerset Police Department, Piedmont Elementary School, West River Foundation, and Deadwood Mountain Grand. Because of these sponsors, 82 more Black Hills families received 984 more meals.

“To put this in context, two years ago, the program sponsored 48 families in the Black Hills and provided 576 consistent meals across the Christmas break,” Covel said.

This year, the program supported 262 families by providing 3,384 consistent meals to children and their families while they were out of school.

“That’s over a 500% increase,” Covel said. “It’s astounding. It’s humbling. It’s the result of local communities stepping up to take care of their own.”

Asked to comment on why he believes the 12 Days has grown into such a success, Covel pointed to the pandemic.

“COVID shook the world in so many ways,” he said. “One of them was in holiday charitable giving. The Sturgis and Piedmont PD have previously done a ‘Shop with a Cop’ event where a student and an officer get to go to Target and pick out essentials.”  

Because of social distancing, that was not possible this year, but the businesses that support Shop with a Cop were even more interested than ever to help their communities.

“Last month, I got a call from Geody Vandewater (police chief in Sturgis). He asked if the department could be part of the 12 Days project by directing resources our way,” he said. “I thought ‘What amazing partners who know about the needs of a community.’ Soon, Summerset PD joined in. Then other sponsors reached out. It was amazing.”

Additionally, Covel believes the program has taken off because 12 Days of Pizza is fun to say and simple to explain.

“The 12 Days of Pizza - 12 families receive 12 meals to provide food for the 12 days of Christmas break while the schools shut down. People get it,” Covel said. “Plus, Pizza Ranches are locally owned and have local sponsors, so they can see the impact they are making right at home.”

Covel said he plans to encourage the growth of the 12 Days project every way he can.

“It has scaled way past my managing it, and I love that,” he said. “It means that hundreds of communities are taking ownership of their own food insecurity issues and designing a solution. Local businesses are partnering to solve a local problem. Every town, no matter how big, no matter how small, has issues of food insecurity that affect the littles. 12 Days isn’t the way food insecurity can be solved completely. But we can absolutely take a slice out of it. Around 150,000 slices, now that I think about it.”

The idea for the 12 Days of Pizza Project struck when Covel was having coffee with a second-grade teacher the day before Christmas break.  

“I asked if her kids were excited for vacation and she paused,” Covel said. “She said that of her 25-student class, only half were excited about break. The other 12 were very nervous because the school provided them with the only consistent meals they have all year. Schools do an amazing job of addressing food insecurity. They have breakfast and lunch programs, the backpack program, which gives students food to get them through the weekend, and summer lunch programs. But Christmas break was the only time the schools shut down completely, and these kids were afraid.”

Covel said once he heard that, he knew he needed to do something and set about creating a project that could operate on its own.  

“I once made a movie called the 12 Dogs of Christmas, and of course there’s the 12 Days of Christmas,” Covel said. “So, it needed to be 12 Day of something. What could you feed a 9-year-old for 12 days that they won’t burn out on? Pizza. So, there it was. The 12 Days of Pizza - 12 families, 12 meals, 12 days.”

With the initial goal achieved and significantly exceeded, Covel said he always thought the program would be a local Black Hills event.  

“So, are my expectations being met? No, I guess they are not,” he said. “My expectations are being fulfilled past my wildest dreams for the program. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Elementary school administrators chose the families that won the 12 Days of Pizza package and delivered the packages at the beginning of Christmas break. Families could then redeem 12 coupons for pizzas with all the toppings they’d like, or chicken dinners.

“In some areas, like Rapid City and Spearfish, our partners deliver pizzas to their families,” Covel said. “One thing I love about the program is that it’s not designed as a charitable hand-out. It’s designed as a party. A pizza party, no less.”  

Every once in a while, an irresistible story to share finds its way to Covel.

“A teacher sent me a quick video of a little girl who found out that she won 12 Days of Pizza Parties for herself and her family starting on the first day of Christmas vacation,” Covel said. “She was not only super excited about winning 12 pizza parties, but she was also beaming with pride. In her family, she will forever be the big winner. The family will think that of this little girl. And she will think that of herself. Because she is a winner.”

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