On a sunny summer day in Detroit, dozens of children leave their apartments to congregate at the neighborhood park. Full of excitement, they run to the field to exchange high fives with their coaches, a local group of professional soccer players. It’s the third week of Community Kicks, and the children can’t wait to enjoy another day of soccer training, nutrition education, and healthy meals.
Launched in 2017, Community Kicks was built upon strategic partnerships between Gleaners Community Food Bank, the United Dairy Industry of Michigan (Milk Means More), and AFC Ann Arbor. Gleaners’ role in the program is to bring an understanding of the many root causes of food insecurity among children – barriers such as transportation, location, and social stigma – and find innovative solutions to help close the meal gap.
“Community Kicks is a program that introduces the basic concepts of soccer, nutrition, and life skills to under-resourced communities,” said Bilal Saeed, founder of Community Kicks and chair of AFC Ann Arbor. “We partnered up with summer feeding programs, which has allowed us to reach communities all over the state.”
This unique undertaking is one of many meal sites associated with Gleaners’ Summer Food Service Program(SFSP), which provides nutritious meals to children during the summer months. At each meal site, Gleaners brings a refrigerated van of prepared meals directly to a place where children are participating in daycare, summer camps, and other programs. Each meal is held to a high standard of nutrition, and includes a carton of milk, a fruit, a vegetable, a grain, and a protein. By meeting these children where they are – in this case, a free soccer program in their own backyard – Gleaners effectively maximizes food distribution, while breaking down the barriers to food access. This important work is only made possible by collaborative community partnerships, with each partner bringing their own unique talents and capabilities to the table.
“Gleaners has been a strong partner of Milk Means More for years, and they are great to work with,” said Cortney Freeland, Director of Education and Community Partnerships at Milk Means More. “We know that they work to create a hunger free summer, and that involves these Meet Up and Eat Up meals.”
Gleaners and Milk Means More work in tandem to make a significant impact on kids and families in Southeast Michigan. With a shared goal of exhibiting and encouraging healthy lifestyles, Gleaners and Milk Means More offer not only meals, but critical nutrition education to participants. Freeland says the meals provided by Gleaners reinforce what the children are learning during their educational programming.
“We always provide the kids with resources that have MyPlate and fun facts on them,” Freeland said. “Hearing it in conjunction with athletes and while they’re having fun just changes how they’re hearing that message and where they’re hearing that message to reinforce it.”
In addition to introducing children to sports and physical exercise, Saeed said AFC Ann Arbor’s role in Community Kicks is to make the meal site inviting and welcoming.
“Gleaners and Milk Means More combined really built something that we can put our programming into quite easily. The kids come for the soccer clinic, but there’s also food here,” Saeed said. “Summer feeding in Detroit would be nothing without Gleaners.”
Gleaners understands that complex problems such as food insecurity demand collaborative solutions. Community Kicks remains just one of many examples of how Gleaners and its partners are working together to think outside of the box to alleviate hunger in our region.