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Not your childhood ice cream truck: How West Michigan is feeding hungry kids this summer

Kids food basket volunteers make bag dinners.

School's out for summer, and for some West Michigan kids, that means less access to the school-based food programs they depend on to fend off hunger. Taking a cue from nostalgic neighborhood ice cream trucks and block parties, some local organizations are bringing healthy food -- and knowledge about how to grow their own -- to kids right where they are this summer.
Schools are a source of nutrition for Grand Rapids-area at-risk kids. Before returning to a home life in food deserts, governmental free breakfast and lunch programs are all that some have to get them through the day.
 
Local non-profits work to fill in the gaps. Kids' Food Basket began in 2002, to get their Sack Suppers -- bags of healthy meals for kids to take home so they don't go hungry after school -- to high-risk Grand Rapids and Muskegon kids. 
 
Also since 2002, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids has run many programs -- the Veggie Van that delivers healthy food to low-income neighborhoods, nutrition education classes, and a Healthy Corner Store program  -- to help kids and families eat well year-round.
 
The Saturday market is at GR Ford Academic Center.School's Out for Summer

When summer arrives and school's out, the gaps in assistance are suddenly much larger for children, and local non-profits do what they can to help.
 
Christine Lentine, outreach director for Kids' Food Basket, hears many heart-wrenching stories from GR teachers, for example, of kids who become withdrawn and have behavioral problems at the end of each month -- the time SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) resources have run out. 
 
"About one in five kids in West Michigan are experiencing hunger," Lentine says. Lack of food, or a reliance on whatever's available at the corner party store, puts extreme stress on growing bodies and minds. "So hunger is not only a physical issue, but it's a cognitive, behavioral issue. Kids who are hungry act out and have problems in school."
 
Her shortest story is of a girl who, instead of feeling that joy most kids feel when summer vacation arrives, feels anxious and insecure.
 
"Hunger is not something that takes a summer break." Thousands of kids rely on federally funded lunch and breakfast programs at elementary schools in Kent county, she says. In the summer there are a few programs, but "inevitably there are a lot less kids who attend those." 
 
Between school years, KFB continues to provide Sack Suppers, but in the summer they've got to "follow the kids to the best of our abilities.... Unfortunately, we're not as able to serve as many kids in the summer as we do in the school year, but we serve as many as we can. We turn up rocks and look for where kids are going to be." 
 
They'll go to summer school programs, summer camps, neighborhood programs, faith-based organizations, the YMCA, etc. "We'll go to sites with as low as 20 kids if we know that there's a need there, if we were serving those kids during the school year."
 
Extra help is coming at Meet Up and Eat Up gatherings. The KFB has partnered with a statewide agency Michigan No Kid Hungry, the Michigan Department of Education and the United Way in promoting the Meet Up and Eat Up Summer Food Service Program. Over 50 Meet Up sites in greater Grand Rapids will serve meals to any child under 18 who live in low-income neighborhoods this summer.
 
Bridget Clark WhitneyExecutive director of KFB, Bridget Clark Whitney, says, "The uncertainty of summer can take a toll on a child physically, cognitively and emotionally. I know that we have found an effective and efficient way to meet the needs of the kids we serve. Through our partnership with the Meet Up and Eat Up summer program, when paired with our Sack Supper, we can make sure every West Michigan child has the nutrition they need to live a stress-free fun summer." 
 
While delivering Sack Suppers, KFB is doing "on-the-ground outreach work" making sure kids and their families know of the Meet Ups, Lentine says. You can call 211 or text FOODMI to 877-877 to find a Meet Up and Eat Up site in your neighborhood, or search the map here.
 
 
Enough Food, But Not Enough Access to Healthy Food
 
"One thing that continues to blow me away is that it's not that there's not enough food -- we have plenty of food in our country," Lentine says. 
 
The problem is "access to food," she says. 
 
The problem is geographical and monetary. Fully-stocked grocery stores are a bus trip away. Many Grand Rapids' neighborhoods are food deserts, with only corner stores selling junk food along with cigarettes and booze. 
 
There may be fresh food in neighborhood stores, but in reality there is no incentive for small stores to provide fruits and vegetables cheaply and in quantity. Fresh food goes bad. Junk food lasts longer on the shelf, and provides cheap, though empty, calories.  
 
"If you go into a bodega, it's much more expensive to buy bananas there than shelf-stable chips," Lentine says.
 
This counterintuitively leads to low-income children being overweight, not underweight.
 
An area resident brings produce to sell at the South Side farmers market organized by Our Kitchen Table.Julie Sielawa, YMCA of Greater Gand Rapids' executive director of community outreach, says that they discovered this problem during the Y's 2002 Youth Obesity Initiative. "We started engaging low-income kids because we were looking at the disproportionate number of children from low-income, vulnerable communities, who were exceedingly overweight, and in many cases, obese." 
 
Thus began a process that was like cutting through layers of an onion, Sielawa says. Each effort to help revealed deeper problems, "which is how we got into the deeper dive into food justice":
 
-- Healthy U, an after-school program to teach kids active and healthy living, revealed that "part of the problem was food insecurity in the home. They could get active and moving, but they weren't eating well."  
 
-- Nutrition in Action followed, a curriculum on nutrition for schools. Kids learned about healthy food, but would tell teachers that, "I tell my mom what broccoli is... but I don't know how to help my mom understand." Cooking vegetables like broccoli had become a foreign concept in food-desert neighborhoods.
 
-- Then came Cooking Matters, a six-week program for adults on shopping for and cooking healthy foods. This revealed the problem that low-income parents often had no reliable transportation to get to a well-stocked grocery or farmers' market. "We quickly learned that we needed to bring produce to them," Sielawa says. 
 
-- So the Y's Veggie Van hit the road in 2012. They buy locally-grown produce, and ship it in their refrigerated trucks to 42 weekly stops in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland year-round. They sell at highly reduced prices, and accept SNAP and other benefits. The Van now serves 12,638 customers, with 2014 sales totaling $70,546.
 
-- In the past few years, the Veggie Van has delivered to designated Healthy Corner Stores. They're now working with five stores in the "hope zones," at-risk communities of Grand Rapids. The store owners tell them what they need and what sells, and the Y helps with coolers, food labels and pricing guides. 
 
Instead of painting the store owners as the bad guys dealing in junk food, "We want them to see themselves as a champion for good health in their community," Sielawa says. 
 
Teaching Families How to Fish

This summer the Grand Rapids Y began moving to the next level, teaching people "about the power of growing their own plants and starting their own garden." They're helping churches and neighborhoods establish community gardens
 
"We're teaching people how to fish, not throwing fish at them," she says. 
 
They're teaching people how to clean and cook the fish, also. And what veggies to serve on the side, of course.
 
In her work with the Y, Sielawa has seen the need to "change the mindset, change the paradigm, change the behavior, to improve social justice, food justice, and eating habits for our vulnerable community members." 
 
At the foundation in this view of social justice/food justice are the children.
 
Sielawa tells of a Muskegon Veggie Van customer who needed help feeding her five-month-old and four-year-old. She was unemployed, couldn't afford baby food, and "the staple of their family's existence was fast food or their corner store." 
 
The mother got better food from the Van, plus she learned from the Y's registered dietitian how to puree her own baby food and cook healthy on the cheap. "She learned tips, and now she's sharing this with her kids," Sielawa says. 
 
"They just didn't know better -- it wasn't for a lack of wanting their kids to have healthy products, it was a lack of knowing how to feed their kids healthy products." 
 
The goal is to get healthy food to food deserts, then to teach parents "how to cook healthier, get that food into the mouths of our babies so that they aren't afraid of a cauliflower or collard green.... Behaviors are learned young, and we feel that the earlier we teach our children, the the better the life-long change they'll really have."
 
Go to grymca.org to find more information on all of the Grand Rapids YMCA nutrition programs, or call 616-855-9648
 
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
 
Mark Wedel is a South West Michigan freelance writer. Since 1993 he’s interviewed people from John Waters to Pat Boone, covered subjects from punk rock to modern dance, has pedaled a bicycle across the Upper Peninsula and sat in John Harvey Kellogg’s turn-of-the-century ”health” contraptions, all in pursuit of a good story.
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