Kids served by Children First Lakeshore don’t have to go home to empty cupboards on weekends. Instead, they open their lockers Friday afternoon and find bags full of food to keep them nourished until Monday.
Children First Lakeshore was created in 2017 by a group of friends who wanted to serve kids in their community. Glen, one founder, is a former high school teacher and father of five. He knows how essential food is for kids’ growth and development.
“It sounds silly that food on a regular basis would make someone more likely to go to college, but that’s a fact,” he said. “If we can alleviate through food some of those obstacles that block pathways for kids, let’s do it.”
Filling a gap
Before forming the nonprofit, Glen asked Albert, principal of Fennville Elementary School, if a weekend meal program would be helpful for his students. Albert was quick to say “yes.” His staff had been doing a “homegrown” program, but could only serve 30 kids a week. The program sometimes received donations, but often, the school’s social workers were the ones purchasing food and creating meal bags for students.
Now, Children First Lakeshore serves 125 kids each week at Fennville Elementary, where 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.
“Those who sign up have been very appreciative,” Albert said. “Socioeconomic status is the biggest single factor that influences outcomes and achievements. If we can cut down on one barrier in people’s lives, hopefully they can focus on other things. Having enough food is just a little piece, but every piece helps.”
In total, Children First Lakeshore provides food for up to 275 kids at Fennville Elementary and at schools in Douglas and Saugatuck. These two neighboring towns are wealthier, so hunger isn’t always as obvious, but 30 percent of kids still qualify for free or reduced-price weekday meals. Glen and the other founders were particularly interested in serving these communities because, due to their wealthier demographic, other programs often pass them by.
“There’s a lot of haves and a few have nots,” Glen said. “There are kids who are sad about summer and Christmas break because they know they get less food at that time, and that’s just hard. The gap makes a difference in education and kids’ ability to compete emotionally and physically. We wanted to serve the have nots.”
It takes a community
Children First Lakeshore is 100 percent volunteer run. Glen and the other founders serve as board members and help deliver bags to schools on Fridays. On Thursdays, a team of volunteers puts the bags together at the Community Church of Douglas. Mike, the church’s director of operations, and Lois, a retiree, have taken on the task of running the nonprofit, doing everything from coordinating volunteers to ordering food from Feeding America West Michigan.
When Glen first approached Mike and Lois to ask for their help, they couldn’t wait to get involved.
“God called me and here I am doing what he called me to do,” Lois said. “I feel so fulfilled. I’ve made so many friends. We’re all seniors and I’m the youngest one!”
Around 10 volunteers show up on Thursdays to bag up the food, much of which is sourced from the food bank.
“The food bank makes our dollars stretch so we can feed more kids, which is the goal,” Mike said. “I order it, I go pick it up and it’s so much easier. It’s a great service you guys provide. What a wonderful thing.”
Each bag typically provides three meals’ worth of food: an entrée pack, snack pack and breakfast pack, all containing four items that kids can easily eat or prepare on their own if necessary. These meals typically supplement food already in the home and provide wiggle room in families’ budgets. Money they save can go toward bills, emergencies or necessities.
Keeping hunger out of schools
For Glen, providing weekend meals to kids is an obvious choice. But he didn’t always think this way. He recalls his perspective when free and reduced-price breakfasts were a brand-new concept:
“I thought that was a ludicrous idea. I didn’t think kids would come to school for breakfast — who wants to come to school early?”
To his surprise, kids did come early, and he was amazed at the change in their alertness after having a meal. This experience inspired him to push for more meals for kids, exactly what Children First Lakeshore is providing today.
Feeding America West Michigan is honored to take part in the innovative ways organizations are fighting hunger across West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Hunger won’t end until all our neighbors can access the food they need when they need it. Children First Lakeshore is part of the state-wide effort to make this happen.
Story written by Communication and Marketing Specialist Juliana Ludema.