This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Editor’s note: In addition to the work described in this article, Gleaners will be holding drive-up food distributions to ensure children and their families have access to nutritious food during the COVID-19 crisis. Visit gcfb.org for a full update. Warren Consolidated Schools food distribution can be found at wcskids.net.
In 2018, Robert Livernois, Warren Consolidated Schools (WCS) superintendent, was "moved by the extraordinary food insecurity that is right among us."
Food insecurity, in general, refers to a lack of resources as well as access to enough food to live an active, healthy life. 68% of students in Warren Consolidated Schools (WCS) qualify for free and reduced school lunch programs. What's more, families miss out on an average of 3.5 meals per person per week.
"Gleaners Community Food Bank did a comprehensive analysis of our community, which revealed a growing gap between how much food is needed and how much food families can access," Livernois says. "Our district, like many in Metro Detroit, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch."
Addressing the immediate need for food, Gleaners works with over 500 soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, disaster relief agencies, and other nonprofit organizations distributing nearly 50 million pounds of food each year. This direct distribution of food is a vital resource to assure people in the Gleaners service area are food secure.
Food in Gleaners' warehouse.
As a key part of Gleaners’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) work, funded with grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF), Gleaners works to address the long term systemic problem of hunger. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
One way Gleaners does this is through the nutrition-education program Cooking Matters, which teaches students and parents how to prepare healthy, tasty meals on a limited budget. The classes cover basic nutrition, food, and safety. A related class teaches parents of young children how to manage picky eating, while encouraging positive eating habits. Food and cooking knowledge are both ways to help families improve their own food security by providing lasting skills.
According to Gleaners, Cooking Matters classes are working. They have seen an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption and reduced food insecurity among participants. Robin Stanton, principal of Warren's Agnes E. Beer Middle School, says, “the Healthy Cooking for Teens class has been a great success. The kids are learning about good nutrition and how to cook. The original plan was to have one class and we had so many kids interested that we have two now."
While SNAP-Ed funds make Cooking Matters classes possible, they also support Gleaners’ coalition-building and leadership work in the project. An example of SNAP-Ed inspired coalition building is Best Food Forward (BFF).
“A big part of Gleaners’ involvement in Best Food Forward is for systems change,” says Rachelle Bonelli, Gleaners' vice president of programs. “We see SNAP-Ed as a catalyst for improving the educational experience right now, and in the future.”
In order to achieve Best Food Forward's ambitious goals, Gleaners and other project partners are combining food distribution efforts with educational classes, school food policies, and a research study conducted by Wayne State University (WSU). The goal is to eliminate food insecurity for families, while studying how education, health, and family stability are affected.
"We are interested in creating a scalable, replicable model that we can build out in other districts," says Bonelli.
BFF mobile food pantries offer direct food assistance to the community at select WCS schools. And BFF, like SNAP-Ed, also sponsors clubs that feature food tastings, recipes, nutrition education, and physical activities. What's more, plans are in the works to have middle and high school clubs undertake service projects to help advance food security in their communities.
Jake Williams, Gleaners program services manager, teaches a Best Food Forward class on whole grains at Pearl Lean Elementary in Warren.
Currently, students are gaining valuable educational experiences by getting involved with the BFF mobile pantries. Kaylee Leszczynski, an eighth grader at Beer Middle School, has been taking time out of her morning to help her neighbors get much-needed groceries at her school.
"Some students are part of the free lunch program here. If their families need extra help they can come by," Leszczynski says. "I feel good helping them."
Leszczynski and other volunteers head out to the sidewalk by the school's bus drop-off and help unload a truckload of healthy food from Gleaners. From there, they hand out fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain items, protein, milk, and other shelf-stable groceries to a line of motorists that typically stretches well into the surrounding neighborhood. Initial surveys of mobile food pantry clients have already shown increased family stability among participants.
The bigger picture is that food security not only improves health, but also helps to create larger systems changes that improve academic performance and overall family stability.
Kids participate in a Best Food Forward class at Pearl Lean Elementary in Warren.
Livernois says their programs are living up to the WCS Nutrition Services Department's motto: "A nourished student is a learning student.”
Gleaners' SNAP-Ed work demonstrates how direct education in the schools, coupled with community engagement, supports short term change and contributes to long term change, extending to the community at large.
“Gleaners has made food more accessible and in doing so has made students and families feel more secure and connected to our schools,” Livernois says. “Ensuring students have access to food, as well as the wellness information provided through our partnerships, will go a long way."