From Detroit to Hartland, an Urgent Moment for School-age Kids

In the weeks leading up to the start of an uncertain school year, parents with school-age children had to make hard decisions concerning their student’s learning. Families struggling with tight financial budgets and barriers like transportation and increased childcare were faced with another heartbreaking dilemma: How will I feed my child?

Since March, food has been a constant worry for Thomas Kostuk. Like so many people across America, Thomas lost a significant amount of work hours and income due to COVID-19. Each month, Thomas and his partner Mandy carefully balance their budget in order to feed their growing kids. “Back when everyone was in school, the kids would get breakfast and lunch. Our food bill was manageable,” said Thomas. “Everyone has been home since March. We could easily go through $400 in a week in food.”

After losing her mother to COVID-19, Mandy is worried about her own underlying health conditions and a daughter that struggles with asthma. She has decided to leave her part-time job to help the kids with virtual learning and limit the family’s exposure. “We’re not sending our kids into school right now because of all the cases,” said Thomas. “With our kids in three different schools, and all the different variables, we can’t risk our family’s health.”

For the past six months, Thomas and Mandy have attended Gleaners’ drive-up School Food Mobile site near his family’s home and the Fresh Market at Shared Harvest Pantry in Livingston County. During a visit on August 19, they received a full box of fresh produce, frozen chicken, eggs and other wholesome food. “Coming here really helps us out,” said Thomas.

Kids should never have to worry about hunger. So many effects of the current crisis are disproportionately impacting our children—especially those from low income households.

The negative consequences of food insecurity can be felt beyond the pains of hunger. Food insecurity also means not having access to sufficient amounts of nutritious foods. Childhood hunger can cause many long-term effects, including poor academic, behavioral and health outcomes. Research demonstrates that children from food insecure households are more likely to have lower math scores and repeat a grade, among many other academic hardships.

In each of the five counties Gleaners serve, kids are at risk of going without the nutritious food they need. Research projects that 30% of children in Wayne County will not have sufficient access to food, while the amount of kids going hungry in Livingston County will more than double.

Consistent Access for School Communities

Gleaners’ School Food Mobile program serves our communities all year long. During the pandemic crisis, Gleaners continues to work alongside school staff to determine the unique needs of each site and the community it serves. In turn, the program has distributed increased amounts of food and become a lifeline for so many.

“The kids love the cereal and milk—I can’t keep enough in the house,” said Lumona Johnson during a School Food Mobile in Warren. “I appreciate that we can come when money is tight.”

Lumona’s first visit to the School Food Mobile was in 2018. During the pandemic, her visits to the drive-up food distribution have become more frequent. Lumona lives with her daughter and helps take care of her three grandchildren and a foster child. During the academic year, the kids rely on free meals provided at school. With the children learning virtually at home, Lumona is having to source meals while managing their schoolwork. “I am struggling just to keep everything straight. It’s just me and the kids all day,” Lumona said. “Having groceries helps, since we get a lot of food all at once.”

Lumona lives on a fixed income and struggles to pay for her medical bills and prescriptions while also caring for her extended family. During the distribution, Lumona received fresh vegetables and milk, frozen chicken, wholesome grains and shelf-stable goods—enough fresh groceries for 30 meals. She said the assistance helps ensure she has enough food to eat healthy too. “I struggle with diabetes, and there wasn’t always money for the right kind of food,” she said. “This truly goes a long way for us.”

Reaching Families Facing Food Insecurity for the First Time

Gleaners continues to operate drive-up food distribution sites throughout southeast Michigan to meet the heightened demand for emergency food. Back in July, Irene Oritz noticed Gleaners’ food distribution at Detroit Edison Public School Academy while driving her husband to work. “It’s been so convenient for me. I drop and pick him up, so this is on my route home.”

Irene has three children, ages seven, nine and ten. She helps support her family by providing childcare for two families in her neighborhood. During the ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ executive order her services were not needed. Irene lost three months of income. The food budget was the first expense they had to cut, and the family is still making up for the loss. Irene said the Gleaners’ food distribution was the first time she had to ask for assistance. “The stress of not having enough food was worrying us so much. I know that’s not good for our health either.”

Irene is back to providing childcare and will also be overseeing her own children as they learn from home. “I had them in a summer school, but there was a COVID-19 scare. I pulled them out and decided to keep them home this fall,” she said.

The food she receives at the distribution helps Irene provide healthy options for her family. “The kids love the food, especially when there is fruit. The peanut butter is great too. I can make a lot of different meals,” she said. “It helps my health too. I’m staying away from chips and sweets. The vegetables are my snacks now. I love the cucumbers.” Irene struggles with high blood pressure and diabetes. In January 2020, her husband suffered a heart attack. Irene is grateful to have access to fresh produce, whole grains, and other items she cannot always afford. “As long as this distribution is happening, I’ll be coming.”