COVID-19 Hunger Heroes Part 6: MI National Guard dedicates 2 ½ months to hunger-relief efforts during pandemic

national guard helping in the warehouse

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, closing jobs and schools, Feeding America West Michigan quickly saw a ripple effect. As neighbors who had never needed food assistance before found themselves facing empty cupboards, and those already facing hunger found it even more difficult to make ends meet, the need for our services grew exponentially.

But just as quickly as the need increased, organizations and neighbors across our service area stepped up to meet it. This blog series highlights some of these hunger heroes. Read the rest of this series here.

From March 16 through June, Feeding America West Michigan has distributed an unprecedented amount of food – 8,956,560 pounds to be exact. That’s roughly 40 percent more food than we distributed during the same time frame in 2019. This food – equivalent to nearly 7.5 million meals – wouldn’t have made it to the hands of our neighbors facing hunger if it weren’t for the support of 17 dedicated Michigan National Guard members.

Kim and fellow National Guard member filling a trunk with food
Kim and a fellow National Guard member fill a trunk with food

Chief Kim and fellow guard member Melaney were among these soldiers, and both are part of the 126th Army Band.

“Everybody on the team here has been very dependable and it’s been really great to work with them all,” Kim said.

The team’s outstanding work ethic and eagerness to learn made them the most efficient volunteer group the food bank has ever had. They filled various critical roles during the crisis, and were absolutely vital to our efforts.

They worked in the reclamation department – sanitizing, sorting and repackaging food – prepared emergency food boxes, filled agency partners’ orders and even helped distribute food at Mobile Pantries. Every minute of their time was invaluable and no doubt, a sacrifice.

“For some of us, I think it was a challenge to be away from home for so long. To be away from our families. The world doesn’t stop just because you’re on a mission,” Kim said.

Melaney left her civilian job at P&G, where she installs, repairs and maintains equipment, to take on this mission. Her skills in this area enabled her to support the food bank in unique ways. She was able to do some maintenance work on the three compartment and mop sinks in the food bank’s reclamation area, among other things.

Similarly, many of the other guard members brought skills from their civilian jobs to their work at the food bank.

“You kind of get double value for a National Guard soldier,” Kim said.

national guard helping in the warehouse
Photo courtesy of the MI National Guard

Connecting to the mission

Kim and Melaney were glad to help from the start, but both connected to our mission more closely after serving at a Mobile Pantry. It was the first time they interacted with our neighbors facing hunger and from that point on, their passion for the mission only grew.

“I loved to see the faces and the thumbs up and even though we couldn’t hug each other or shake hands, I always stood at the end of the row so I could wave at people when they left and smile with my eyes even though we all had masks on. I wanted them to know that we were here to help them and we were all in this together,” Kim said.

At one Mobile Pantry, Melaney had the opportunity to serve a Vietnam veteran who reminded her of her father who served in the same war. At that moment, she recognized that anyone, including her father, could be in the line.

“That one got me to tear up,” she shared.

Kim concurred: “It really helped to open our eyes.”

Melaney awaits the next car in line
Melaney awaits the next car in line

Serving at the Mobile Pantries reminded the team of their simple privilege to wake up each morning to a bowl of cereal or a stack of pancakes – “not everybody is as fortunate as you are to be able to have that,” Kim said.

Not only did the experience remind Kim to be thankful for the food in front of her, but also that, as Melaney said, “when things get tough, we rally around each other as humans.”

Kim recalled an encounter with one family who, after receiving food from a Mobile Pantry, gave their extra masks to the volunteers.

“It’s like they wanted to give back, but they could only give what they had,” she said. “They were willing to sacrifice the last few masks that they had in their car.”

Malaney said she encountered a wide range of human emotions from the neighbors she served.

“Some of them are really grateful and some of them, maybe they didn’t bring themselves to say anything, but I could very easily make an assumption that things are really hard,” she said. “It might be really hard for them to come into a line.”

She also noted that “how a person is dressed or what kind of car they drive might not have anything to do with needing some food.”

Reflecting on their experience

“I was surprised that so much food goes through this food bank. It’s just amazing, the management and the production team it takes to keep this place running,” Kim said.

She was also struck by the variety that comes through the food bank’s doors, and said she was glad to see things like baby and pet food.

national guard sorting potatoes
Photo courtesy of the MI National Guard

“This place is nothing but good for the community. It’s here for the right reasons, with the right people doing the right thing,” Melaney said.

“Everyone here are Feeding America [West Michigan] seems to know exactly what the mission is and has a passion for it,” she continued.

Both Kim and Melaney have grown a similar passion for hunger-relief and said that after having such an impactful experience at Feeding America West Michigan, they will absolutely be volunteering at food banks near their own homes in the future.

“I never would have imagined doing something like this as part of a mission for the National Guard, but it’s been one of the most rewarding things that’s ever happened in my whole life,” Melaney shared. “I would do it all over again, and I will continue to support Feeding America in whatever ways I can.”

“I think we got as much if not more out of the experience as the food bank did,” Kim agreed.

Without the tireless work of the MI National Guard, Feeding America West Michigan would not have been able to serve so many neighbors during the pandemic. Each and every one of them is a hunger hero.

Story written by Communication Manager Molly Kooi