This story was originally published in the March 14, 2013 issue of Rapid Growth.
Ten years ago, children were caught digging through the dumpster behind a Grand Rapids elementary school. Troublemakers? No. They were looking for food. They were hungry.
Mary K. Hoodhood saw the children, asked the questions, got the answers, and didn't settle for what she heard. What she learned was that for these children, the food they found in the trash was all they might get to eat when they went home after the school day was done. That year, 2003, Hoodhood started a program called Kids' Food Basket, packing nutritious meals in paper sacks and delivering 125 of these sack suppers to children at three sites, including the school where she had seen the children digging through trash.
Ten years later, 2013, Kids' Food Basket (KFB) is delivering sack suppers to 5,100 children at 36 schools in greater Grand Rapids and its newest satellite in Muskegon. In 2010, in fact, Hoodhood received the Presidential Citizen's Medal from President Obama for her work with KFB. It's cause for a celebration.
"We are celebrating our community," says Ashley Abbott, fund development and community outreach coordinator at Kids' Food Basket. "It's our community that has made us what we are."
The Family Gala to mark the organization's first decade will be held on June 8, from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Aquinas College, and will include food, festivities, and entertainment for the family. Tickets go on sale April 1 at www.kidsfoodbasket.org/10year.
Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director, was a part of the organization nearly from its inception. "Ten years," she says. "That's 10 years of impact, 10 years of kids who rely on us for food, 10 years of creating a brighter future."
Entering the building at 2055 Oak Industrial Drive in Grand Rapids, the enthusiasm to make a difference is instantly evident. Cardboard boxes heaping with food items fill nearly every space, floor to ceiling. Lined up at sloping tables, 175 volunteers, coming and going in short shifts throughout the day, are packing lunches. At one section, trail mix is being mixed and measured into plastic bags. At another, meat and cheese sandwiches are being assembled. Pieces of fruit rattle into the sacks at yet another area. A volunteer pushes a dolly packed with boxes of sacks to the loading dock, called Norm's Alley to honor a long-time volunteer who passed away form cancer. Another volunteer pulls up to pick up and deliver the meals to schools.
"I can tell you a lot of stories about the children who receive those sack suppers," says Whitney. "There's the little girl who received her first lunch, only to bring exactly half of it back to school the following day. She didn't realize she was now going to receive a meal every day, so she saved half to make sure she wouldn't go hungry the next day."
The sack suppers, in fact, are delivered not only every week day, but an extra sack on Fridays, so that the children have a meal for the weekend, too. During summers and school breaks, meals are delivered to summer camps, or parks, or other places where children might gather for activities. Each meal provides 800 to 1,000 calories from five food groups.
"And then there's Katie," Whitney begins another story about yet another hungry child. "She collected ketchup packets every day, and when she was asked why, she said that when she would have enough, she and her grandma would be able to make tomato soup."
The collection of stories is large, and it keeps the staff and volunteers motivated when the hours get long and resources sparse. Abbott adds another: "A teacher told us that she made a home visit to a little boy's home, and in his room, there was nothing more than a mattress on the floor. The boy flipped up his mattress for the teacher to see … the bottom was covered with the taped-on paper sacks from his sack suppers. They were all decorated. When the teacher asked why he kept them, the boy told her, 'because they are mine.'"
The paper sacks are nearly all decorated. Crayon drawings, flowers, smiley faces, hearts, stick figures, designs and doodles. "We provide a meal and a smile," Abbott says. The bags are decorated by other children or are left in waiting rooms in various offices, inviting people to add their personal touch.
"We normally keep a two- to three-day capacity of meals on hand," says Whitney. "We have nine schools on a waiting list right now, but we make sure we can support a new school for three years before we add them to our list. Consistency of meals is very important to us and to the children. Sack suppers are sometimes the only thing in their lives they can depend upon."
According to KFB, based on Food Research and Action Center data, the Grand Rapids metropolitan area has a food hardship rate of 19.4 percent, ranking it 34th among the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., and higher than Detroit or Chicago. Area elementary schools where 80 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches at school are added to the list. Schools served are throughout Kent County, from Kentwood to Forest Hills, to Comstock Park to Grandville.
"We are not a Band-Aid program," Whitney says. "Schools that were failing 10 years ago are thriving today, and the principals have told us that having food to eat is a factor in the academic success of these children. Having nutritious meals is crucial to brain development up to age 12; that's why we concentrate on this age group."
"One in four children in Michigan struggles with hunger," says Abbott, "but four in four have the power to help end it. Those who have received have a chance to give back. They learn about philanthropy, project management, and the importance of nutrition."
"Poverty is complex," Whitney adds. "Feeding a child is not."
Photography by Adam Bird.