Hunger in Uniform: JROTC Cadets Overcoming Food Insecurity

A cadet in Innovation Central High School's JROTC program waits for the Food Bank's Mobile Food Pantry to arrive.

A hard, cold rain was falling when the Mobile Food Pantry pulled up to Innovation Central High School on a Thursday evening in February. Sergeant James Peterson stood in the weather for a few minutes, then decided to move the food inside.

Half a dozen students, all members of Central’s JROTC program, got to work hauling skids of bread and lettuce off the truck and into the school.

JROTC cadets are required to do service hours, and they can earn promotions if they meet their quotas.

“It’s not just the promotion,” Peterson said, “it’s to see the smiles of the families as they come through. … They actually see their contributions to the community.”

Clarence, a high school junior, varsity football player, and JROTC cadet, volunteers at Central High School's Mobile Pantry.
Clarence, a varsity football player and JROTC cadet, volunteers at Central High School’s Mobile Pantry.

One of the cadets helping that night was Clarence, an 11th-grade student and varsity football player wearing a University of Michigan hat and a Superman sweatband on his wrist.

When he’s not in class or playing football, Clarence is on the job hunt. “I never sleep,” he said. “Always on the move.”

Clarence hopes to go to college through the ROTC, and if he does that, he’ll have the opportunity to join the Army as a 2nd lieutenant after graduation.

“My family is military, so I’m military,” he said.

The food Clarence and his fellow cadets distributed that night was enough to provide three to four days’ worth of food to up to as many as 100 households. The school has hosted five Mobile Pantries so far, and Clarence has volunteered at all but one.

“He’s always willing to help,” Peterson said.

Many of the cadets in Peterson’s corps are in need of the same food assistance they’re helping to provide, but he didn’t count Clarence among them.

Clarence himself told a different story.

“I am that person that would come to get food,” he said. When school lets out for the summer — a time when many families struggle with food insecurity — Clarence and his mom will sometimes collect food at Feeding America West Michigan’s Mobile Pantries.

“That’s why I want to do this, to help other [people] … to make sure a family could eat at night, to make sure they have food.”

The Mobile Pantry program at Central and other schools in the Grand Rapids Public School system is supported by grants from several foundations. Central has eight more Mobile Pantry dates scheduled through October, but Feeding America West Michigan is seeking additional sponsors to keep the program going.

The goal is to provide students like Clarence, whose need may or may not be obvious, with a source of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables so they can reach their potential.

Help us reach more of our neighbors in need. Give today.