Rapid Blog: Kids' Food Basket founder talks lessons in leadership and responding to a food crisis

During the recent snow storms, Kids' Food Basket, along with area partners and volunteers, was able to deliver 9,250 emergency meals over three days from 15 distribution sites. Founding CEO Bridget Clark Whitney discusses the continued need for healthy, equitable food, especially in emergency situations. To get involved, check out KFB's 24 Hour Giving Party this Friday, Feb. 22 from midnight to midnight. The nonprofit will have 24 hours of activities and some of Grand Rapids’ best DJ’s playing tunes all day.
During the recent snow storms, Kids' Food Basket, along with area partners and volunteers, were able to deliver 9,250 emergency meals over three days from 15 distribution sites. Founding CEO Bridget Clark Whitney discusses the desperate need for healthy, equitable food, especially in emergency situations. 
Probably one of the greatest leadership lessons of my almost-17 year career of leading Kids’ Food Basket was learned this past month. The story of how we got there, however, starts about a year ago…

Several members of our KFB team and a few local community leaders began a conversation around snow days and emergency food provision. We had just experienced our third (but not consecutive) snow day that early spring and recognized that, among many challenges snow days create, food assistance was an added hurdle for countless families in our community. Our challenge as the chief hosts of a community-wide response to childhood hunger then was to be proactive and meet that need with a food assistance response plan.

As life in the nonprofit sector often humbly reminds us, we simply found ourselves with limited organizational capacity to be able to take on this project. The reasons for it were the most legit — our already lean staff was in the midst of several long-term projects along with executing our critically-needed daily work without any government funding. Our Leadership Team thoughtfully and carefully decided to put this project into a “parking lot” (or if we’re being super sustainable, onto the bike rack). Therein lies the core of the leadership lesson … we always must be planning for emergencies, because emergencies are just that — unpredictable, sudden, fierce, and requiring immediate attention, planned or not. Capacity or not. Emergencies don’t wait for solid plans.

By the end of January 2019, we’d already had three snow days this school year. The months of November and December 2018 were pretty mild in terms of Michigan winters, and us tough Michiganders were getting over confident and comfortable in our two inches of snow ... events like polar vortexes and snowmaggedons seemed like distant memories, the old nasty winter tales we’d share with the future generations.

We were quickly reminded, however, that we were due for good dose of Michigan’s ferocity — at the epicenter of the polar vortex, with massive lake effect snow and sub-zero temperatures. For a moment, the Poles, Alaska, and Siberia were all a warmer climate than The Mitten State. Now maybe it was that overconfidence, maybe we all thought the media had over-hyped it, but regardless, as a community, we simply didn’t plan for a weather emergency so huge as to have schools closed six days in a row.

Snow days weigh heavy on our hearts — the families and the children we are serving face so many barriers — poverty IS a huge barrier —  and consistent, safe school days break down many of these barriers for our kids. But snow days mean barriers — lack of childcare, loss of wages, lack of consistent meals … and these barriers manage to not only keep families in poverty from moving forward, but often set already-stretched, already-stressed families back even further. We learned here that weather events of this magnitude require planning and resources — and that this was not an incident, it’s a condition.

Living in Michigan, and living in Michigan in 2019 when weather patterns continue to become more drastic, means that the types of weather that cause snow days will not cease — in fact, they could become even more frequent and more intense, as we saw last week. And by Wednesday morning, January 30, as school had been called off for the rest of the week, our team made a conscious decision that action was necessary, action was critical, and action was within our reach.

At one point during our two weeks of intense emergency food provision, I was passing our Program Director Austin in a hallway when he looked at me and simply said, “This is just what we do. This is who we are.” And that — right there — couldn’t have summed up our two weeks of emergency response any better.

On Wednesday morning, January 30, our Leadership Team began a flurry of texts after the alert about the multiple-day closure. We were all simultaneously communicating with each other and our community partners — looking for open, operating, and accessible locations that could possibly be food distribution sites around GR (we had already mobilized three sites in Muskegon and one site in Holland). Our general email inbox and Facebook messenger began to overflow with messages such as these:
  • Hi. I’m with my three children in a motel and we haven’t eaten in three days. Could you help us out?
  • I’m a teacher at Sibley Elementary and I’m so concerned about whether or not my students have food. Can I come in to volunteer? I have a small sedan but I’ll drive through anything to help.
  • Somehow, you’re always here for us. Our after-school program was cut, we don’t have access to any food pantries, our only transportation is walking. But you’re here for us, thank you.
  • With my employer shut down all week, I’m losing wages. We really need some help.
  • I’m wondering if you’re open? My neighbors on my block are really struggling and this weather makes things so much worse. Can I come and get some food to bring to them?
But it wasn’t until we had a discussion with our partners at United Way 211 that we fully understood the gravity of the need and the urgency in which we had to mobilize. In addition to community members’ lost wages due to snow days, the 211 responders informed us that they didn’t have any food pantries or food resource organizations to direct their callers to — that most organizations were closed and they were wondering and hoping that they could send clients to Kids’ Food Basket. Then and there, the decisions were made — without any debate of whether or not we should — to mobilize our connections and distribute emergency food in the most effective, efficient, and safe way possible.

Our team spent Wednesday communicating: calling, emailing, texting, asking, and delegating … with the goal of multiple distribution sites where we could safely and effectively hand out emergency food. The food would include what was already in our warehouse — over 3,000 Supper Packs (healthy food already packed up in ready-to-go gallon bags), and thousands of pounds of fruit cups, meat sticks, apples, pears, carrots, string cheese, pudding cups, sunflower seeds, cheerios, raisins, and other healthy snacks. Family friendly, healthy, ready-to-eat, and, perhaps most importantly, barrier-free food.

Perhaps the most important pieces of our Emergency Food Assistance Programming were the incredible, and somewhat unexpected, partnerships that evolved through organizations that came together in this time of crisis. I reached out to one of my best friends and urban planner extraordinaire, Lynee Wells, to ask her advice on a distribution site that would be easily accessible for our families. What was safe, with few barriers, and in the middle of the city? She brilliantly suggested The Rapid, where buses were still running at full capacity and people could easily and safely take the bus to central station, collect what food they needed from Kids’ Food Basket, and take the bus home.

Thanks to the team at The Rapid and support from Mayor Bliss, we were able to serve thousands of emergency meals through that one distribution site. And with 15 different distribution sites, each comes with stories of collaboration, heart-wrenching stories of poverty and need, and stories of impact, where the weekend was a little easier for Esther, the grandmother I met who was caring for her six grandkids who were out of school, and at home, out of food.

When we talk to teachers and principals and school coordinators, we often hear the same things about the meals we serve. That our flagship program — the Sack Supper program — is a critical component of 8,000 children’s days. That our students rely on the healthy, nourishing meals that we consistently provide. But in emergencies like this, it isn’t only our healthy meal that fills a gap, it’s the loss of three meals a day that can catapult food insecurity into devastating hunger, as we heard many stories of these past weeks. Often people are surprised when they hear we serve 8,000 meals per day, but that’s still only a fraction of the need that exists here in Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon Counties. In fact, 46 percent of all children, or 79,470 local kids, in these three counties combined receive free/reduced school lunch daily. I don’t know about you, but that number is hard for me visualize, and certainly hard to accept. Imagine filling up the Van Andel Arena EIGHT times over … just imagine. That’s how many children in these three counties are facing the barriers of poverty, and likely food insecurity.

As the weather (for now) has seemingly calmed, and our team has settled back into leading a daily movement alongside 250 volunteers ensuring that 8,000 Sack Suppers reach children at the end of each school day, I have been overwhelmed by the sheer impact of what we accomplished when our community perhaps needed us more than they ever have.

Thanks to the astounding, continuous support from YOU, we were able to provide 9,250 emergency meals over three days from 15 distribution sites across the counties we already serve. Along with staff and our hosting facilities, we had 80 leadership volunteers rise to the occasion and put the community needs above their own as we all navigated one of the most severe sequences of winter storms we’ve seen in some time.

I’m sure you’ll share this sentiment with me —  it’s not about accolades or street cred, it’s not about our media hits or Facebook likes — we did this, and we did it together, because it’s just what we do. It’s simply who we are. I have believed that since day one with Kids’ Food Basket, and every day since as I’ve made it my life’s work to never stop until we can reach every single child who needs us — simply because the work that we do is good, it is right, and it is so critical as we invest in the future of the community we love. Healthy, equitable food isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.

Leading a movement is hard, beautiful, non-stop work — I’ve known and lived this for 17 years. Learning to trust the value of our work wholeheartedly, even when it means throwing all planning and precautions out the window, in hopes that the community will yet again respond in incredible fashion, was my lesson to learn over these past few weeks. I emerged from the emergency response work with my heart bursting with anger at injustice and marginalization, the beauty of community, the tenacity of our incredible team, and the impact we made over those two weeks.

If you shared our social media posts, made a gift to KFB, dropped off some food to help replenish our warehouse, or simply sent us warm thoughts, thank you. Our team is doing amazing things on the daily here, but it continues to be YOU, our community, who are leading the charge in sharing our story, rising to meet the need, and making sure that all of our children have the nourishment they need to succeed, in school and in life. Thank you for making me better, thank you for making Kids’ Food Basket better, and thank you for making West Michigan better.

P.S., many of you have asked how you can help. Here are the top four ways:
  1. Join us THIS Friday from Midnight to Midnight for our 24 Hour Giving Party! We’ll have 24 hours of activities and some of Grand Rapids’ best DJ’s playing tunes all day. Midnight starts Cosmic Volunteering, 7 a.m. yoga, 8 a.m. Omelette Bar, and the list goes on. Check out our website kidsfoodbasket.org or our Facebook page for more info.
  2. A gift of any size will fund healthy, nourishing meals for local kids. Kids’ Food Basket is a charitably-funded organization and our meals are not funded by government dollars. Your contribution of any size will truly make an impact.
  3. Did you know it takes an average of 250 volunteers per day to make and deliver 8,000 meals? Kids’ Food Basket is always in need of volunteers. Please check out our website and get hooked in! Really love us? Drop me a note and become a Leadership Volunteer! We need your skills and expertise!
  4. Food Drives! We emptied our warehouse for emergency food assistance and need some help with replenishment. A food drive at your place of work, faith community, school, etc. will make a big impact. Please consider a food drive for the ‘wish list’ items on our website.  
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