Fresh Start provides tools to help families make the most of food assistance

Lorena, 10, and her sister Lili, 15 pose for a photo.

Kids who don’t eat enough healthy food start life at a disadvantage. They’re at higher risk of disease, repeating a grade and developmental impairments — such as language or motor skills. That’s why many schools run Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantries.

Mobile Pantries provide plenty of fresh food like dairy and produce, but, at times, the food available is new to families. Kids especially can be quick to dismiss unfamiliar foods. Our Fresh Start Initiative aims to bridge this gap for all neighbors. One way is by showing kids that fruits and vegetables are fun, healthy and tasty.

Activity kit items are laid out, including books, erasers and stickers.

Recently, we partnered with the Kent County Medical Society Alliance to provide three of our partner schools with activity kits that included vegetable erasers and stickers, a kid-friendly recipe book called “I Heart Vegetables” (in both English and Spanish) and activity sheets such as grocery store bingo. Three Mobile Pantry coordinators distributed 150 of these packs to families at each of their Kent County food distributions.

Emily, a mom of five, attended one of these Mobile Pantries at Sibley Elementary in early February.

“I liked those recipes. They’re very simple, but you can see they’re wholesome,” she said.

Emily with two of her five daughters, Lorena and Lili.

Emily doesn’t always need food assistance, but since the beginning of the pandemic, she’s attended Mobile Pantries more regularly.

“Money has been tight. It had always been tight before, and then my husband was laid off for four months,” she said. “We’re just trying to play catch up from that. This is one way we can save money for other things.”

Over the past few years, a lot has changed for the family financially. Like many parents, Emily quit her job after her youngest twins were born three years ago. This choice saved on daycare costs, but still left the family with just one full-time income. On top of that, the family has been paying off medical bills.

Mobile Pantries provide a quick way for Emily and her family to access supplemental groceries.

“I know I can always depend on it. I don’t have to worry about not having something. It’s kind of like a sense of security,” she said. “I still have to obviously buy groceries, but this helps.”

Besides her 3-year-olds, Emily has twin 10-year-olds and a 15-year-old.

“They eat a lot — especially the older ones!” she said.

Pablo poses with the book and activity kit.
Pablo is one Mobile Pantry coordinator who gave out the activity kits.

Anyone can find themselves in need of food assistance. Emily’s family is among the 15.7 percent of Kent County residents estimated to be facing hunger, but their neighbors may not notice their need. They like taking walks, going to the park and playing board games, just like any other family with young children.

Lili, 15, likes basketball, music and wants to be a traveling NICU nurse when she grows up. Lorena, 10, loves researching animals and hopes to work with them one day. She really likes her mom’s alfredo.

Lorena, 10, and her sister Lili, 15 pose for a photo.

“There’s nothing wrong with accepting help, because someday you might be offering the help,” Emily said. “I’ve been on both sides. There’s been times when I’ve been able to help people in different ways.”

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.