Kids served by Children First Lakeshore don’t have to go home to empty cupboards on weekends. Instead, they open their lockers on Friday afternoons 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 each 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% 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 between Fennville Elementary and schools in Douglas and Saugatuck. These two neighboring towns are wealthier, so hunger isn’t always as obvious, but 30% of kids still qualify for free or reduced-price school 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. 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% volunteer-run. On Thursdays, a team of around 10 volunteers gather at the Community Church of Douglas to bag up the food—much of which is sourced from the food bank. Glen and the other founders serve as board members and help deliver bags to schools on Fridays.
“The food bank makes our dollars stretch so we can feed more kids, which is the goal,” said Mike, who coordinates the organization’s volunteer efforts. “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.