How Volunteering as a Youth Inspired College Student to Fight Food Insecurity with Blessing Box Detroit
As a fifth-grader, Obaidah Bitar had no clue what food insecurity really looked like until he went with his classmates to volunteer through Kids Helping Kids at Gleaners.
“I didn't know the extent of who was hungry, and the situations of what people who are hungry face,” says Obaidah, now a premed student at Wayne State University.
Before they packed BackPacks full of nutritious food that would help kids facing food insecurity, a Gleaners coordinator asked the group, “Do you know that kids younger than you don’t have access to food?”
That shattered the preconceived notions in his head.
"I would've never thought thta there woudl be a lot of kids in Detroit that are hungry," he recalls.
He remembers having a fun day competing against his classmates to see who could pack BackPacks the fastest, but it ended up making a lasting impact on him – it helped drive him to choose a career path focused on service and helping others.
A Need on Campus
He volunteers at Beaumont Hospital where he works with newborns, which aligns with his goal of becoming a pediatrician. As a sophomore he worked with his fellow classmates at a homeless shelter. But it was the experience at Gleaners that stayed with him.
These experiences led him to co-found Blessing Box Detroit. The box is similar in concept to others around the country, which inspired the Muslim Student Association to bring one to the Wayne State community because of the homeless population on campus.
Obaidah and his friends would be walking to lunch, and someone would come up to them, Obaidah says. They’d say, “ ‘Listen man, I'm in a bad spot right now. I just need money for food.’ And we would be on our way to go get food. So we would buy him an extra sandwich and we'd give it to him.”
After that happened several times, that inspired them to take that idea and expand it with the Blessing Box. The locker-sized food pantry can hold up to 120 pounds of food, including nonperishable canned and dry goods, as well as hygienic items. It’s located at the University Islamic Center of Detroit in Midtown. The idea is simple: take what you need and give what you can. The vision for the box is for it to be self-sustainable: When it’s empty, others will restock it.
Eliminating the Stigma
With a 24/7 mini food pantry that doesn’t require ID and is easily accessible without the need for transportation, it also addresses the stigma of asking for help, Obaidah says.
“When we talked to a lot of homeless people, they did mention that they did feel a bit uncomfortable [when asking for help] … and they feel a sort of stigma.”
His team recently won $3,000 as part of a STEAM challenge as well as the $15,000 first-place award in the OptimizeWayne challenge. With the funding, they are excited to put it to good use. They have big plans for the future of Blessing Box. The group is working on their five-year plan, exploring partnerships, and looking to expand to schools. The goal is to have five more Blessing Boxes this year to serve more people in need.
“You hear stories of people walking four hours to get breakfast, you know, and that's how difficult it is (for them to access food). And then when we just go downstairs to get cereal … you feel a lot more blessed.”
And inspired to share that blessing, whether it’s through service or creating a Blessing Box.
Check out Blessing Box Detroit on Instagram.