Kids facing hunger receive weekend meals thanks to “angels” in Mecosta County

At an elementary school in Big Rapids, Leah’s official title is “secretary,” but she often finds herself helping hungry kids. She and the school’s social worker watch students closely for hunger’s warning signs – such as misbehavior, lack of focus or hunger between meals. They then connect these students to Angels of Action’s weekend meals program.

Angels of Action sends hungry kids home with bags of food on the weekends.

Angels of Action started small by storing and distributing food out of founder Joni’s garage. Today, with help from school employees like Leah, many community members and Feeding America West Michigan, Angels of Action fills 800 kids’ backpacks at 12 schools across Mecosta County with food to bring home on weekends.

A group of volunteers stands in a room full of food, ready to pack their bags.
“Angels” pack bags of meals for children in need.

After Leah identifies students who need food, she sends a letter to parents, explaining that their child will be receiving a bag each weekend. They can choose to opt out if desired.

“I love seeing the excitement [the kids] have when they get the food,” Leah said. “Hunger affects their ability to learn, which affects their confidence, which affects their behavior.”

In Mecosta County, 66 percent of kids receive free or reduced lunch. Many of them receive both breakfast and lunch at school, but for some, that’s not enough to quell their hunger if they didn’t have dinner the night before. In response, they might misbehave.

A volunteer packs a bag with granola bars.

Teachers know snacks can help alleviate this, which is why they commonly help kids on their own budgets when they have no access to supplemental snacks. Thanks to Angels of Action, schools can provide snacks, along with weekend meals, to fill in these gaps.

Kids face food insecurity for a variety of reasons. Leah meets kids whose parents are in college and on tight budgets, have recently lost jobs or are incarcerated.

Rurality is another hunger-causing factor in Big Rapids and in Mecosta County. Grocery stores are distant, transportation is expensive and jobs are scarce, increasing the risk of childhood hunger.

Leah shared stories of kids who ask for extra snacks for siblings; families who need food but don’t want to accept help, so their kids hide in their closets at home to eat the backpack food; and kids who can only tell her in a whisper that there’s a problem at home. Leah became teary-eyed while describing these situations.

“It’s amazing what these kids carry,” she said.

The nonprofit’s founder and executive director, Joni, is also quick to become emotional when talking about kids in need. Volunteers bring the bags of food to the schools, but Joni usually stays at the office, knowing that kids might recognize her and ask about the food. She can’t make it through those interactions without tearing up.

Joni poses with food in a school hallway.
Joni (right) and staff member Estelle visit a school that receives Angel bags.

“We know the stories are all different,” Joni said. “All we care is that if a kid is hungry and needs food, that they get a bag.”

Angels of Action began eight years ago, over breakfast, when Joni and a group of friends were brainstorming ways they could volunteer.

They all had teacher friends who’d share stories of parents dumpster diving to feed their families. To help out, these teachers would purchase snacks for their classrooms using their own money.

Joni and her friends decided to start their own nonprofit and began packing bags of food for 25 kids a week out of Joni’s garage. The nonprofit has grown significantly since that time. Today, Angels of Action serves 32 times as many kids and stores food at an abandoned elementary school.

Volunteers place bags of food into lockers. One is smiling as another hands him a bag.

Procuring enough food to feed so many kids is tough and expensive if purchased directly from stores. To mitigate this, Joni works with Feeding America West Michigan to get a variety of surplus food items that will work as classroom snacks, and as elements for weekend meals.

The food bank’s warehouse makes it possible for us to store large donations from retailers and farmers that we can then distribute throughout West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula to our partner agencies like Angels of Action.

In addition to taking advantage of Feeding America West Michigan, Joni hosts a variety of unique fundraisers to support the program – from a 100-mile bike ride to a Christmas lights ceremony. But out of the many unique things Angels of Action does, Joni is most proud of the nonprofit’s long-term partnership with the local transition center, a school for adult neighbors with special needs.

Ellen, the woman who runs the transition center, is always looking for new ways her students can learn job skills. That’s why she loved Joni’s partnership idea from the beginning. She wants her students to learn skills in a real-life environment, not just in made up scenarios.

“I knew I wanted more things for my students to do that were hands-on,” Ellen said. “I wanted it to be meaningful – to have more behind it than an assembly line type thing.”

The goal of the center, for students aged 18 to 26, is to help them transition out of high school and into normal life or the workforce.

The center runs the packing process like a job. Each week, students start by double bagging plastic bags. Then, depending on a student’s skill set, they are responsible for their own station – such as putting cans of tuna in the bags, counting items or boxing up completed bags. Through the program, students learn responsibility and how to work in a team.

Jars of peanut butter wait to be sorted.

“Sometimes just counting to 10 is an accomplishment,” Ellen said. “So I let them count to 10.”

Many of the students get to deliver the bags of food to the elementary schools.

“Some of my students used to be little kids who would’ve gotten bags,” Ellen said. “But I don’t promote it that way. I say its adults giving back to kids.”

Last year, transition center students were featured in a video at the nonprofit’s year-end fundraiser. When Joni showed the video to the students, one got up and started walking around.

Joni asked him if he was okay.

“It made my heart happy,” he told her. The two then shared a hug.

“They get the reason why they’re doing it and they feel great about themselves,” Ellen said.

Ellen points to a job board that students use when packing bags.
The transition center brings bags to multiple schools in the Big Rapids area.

By then end of the program, when students are getting ready to graduate, they have often morphed into different people, Ellen said. They have confidence they may not have had before.

“There’s magic that happens here,” Joni said.

Community members from around the county also volunteer their time at Angels of Action. Longtime volunteer Jesse first became involved through the give back program through her job at Wesco, and now she manages a book giveaway program for Angels of Action.

Jesse poses with jars of peanut butter.

Schools tell Jesse the number of kids who need books, and she finds donated books that are appropriate for the ages of the kids. Jesse also sorts food at the abandoned elementary school the nonprofit calls home, raises money for the 100-mile bike riders and helps with Angels of Action’s hygiene program.

“I think we don’t realize what a need there is in our country,” Jesse said. “We need to feed these kids.”

Feeding America West Michigan’s partner agencies, like Angels of Action in Mecosta County, inspire us to keep fighting hunger. Without their efforts, distributing food to neighbors in need throughout our service area would be a much bigger challenge. Thanks to Angels of Action’s hard work, and the dedication of school secretaries, volunteers and even bike riders, hundreds of kids in need in Mecosta County can go to bed knowing they’ll have full plates this weekend.

Story written by Communication Assistant Juliana Ludema.