Gleaners looks to tackle hunger through schools

Originally Printed in Crain’s Detroit Business – January 27, 2020

Can ensuring students and families are 100 percent food secure also translate to better educational outcomes and economic stability for families?

A 10-year pilot led by Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, the Food Bank Council of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and Warren Consolidated Schools is looking to prove it can and to create a scalable model that can be replicated in other districts around the state.

Launched in October, Best Food Forward is working to eliminate hunger for students and families at the five schools participating in the pilot and to track the impact that has on education, health and family stability.

The pilot is coordinating support from new and existing food pantries and programs, federal child nutrition programs in the schools, and other community hunger assistance and pairing it with environmental changes (such as murals of fresh food in schools), nutrition education, school, parent and youth engagement and policy change, said Rachelle Bonelli, vice president of programs at Gleaners.

The Michigan Department of Education, which facilitates the school meal programs, has contributed $221,000 to the pilot for the next two years, and Tyson Foods is funding mobile pantries at the middle and high schools participating in the pilot.

The education department also secured a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to support Wayne State University’s evaluation of the pilot and a similar effort launched by the Food Bank Council and Westwood Heights school district in Flint.

WSU will track a broad number of behavioral, health, aggregate education and socioeconomic indicators for 100 students — from grades 3-12 — and 100 parents of those students in each city, in the hopes of attracting future funding from the National Institute of Health, Bonelli said.

“Kids do better academically if hunger is taken off the table,” she said.

“We want to improve graduation … and literacy rates. That’s not going to happen in one or two years, but we think it will over time.”

And by taking hunger off the table for families of students in the district, as well, it will take stress off students and enable parents to focus on other needs and opportunities such as job training, she said. “The hypothesis is if we solve food security for these families, we will see academic, health (and) behavioral improvements in the kids and greater stability within the families.”

Just under three-quarters or 68 percent of students in the Warren district qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs at school, Bonelli said. Need ranges by school, with 90 percent qualifying at one and 46 percent at another.

There is a large immigrant population in the district, with 35 different native languages spoken by families there, according to the district.

Families in the district are missing an average of 3.5 meals, per person, per week, Bonelli said. School meals are helping fill part of that need, and United Way for Southeastern Michigan is working to increase breakfast participation to fill the gap even further, she said.

Gleaners is now also bringing food to new, school-based pantries and connecting families to community pantries that may offer more convenient hours or churches families are more comfortable visiting. And nonprofits like Blessings in a Backpack are providing backpacks of food for students to take home over the weekends.

All told, the effort includes roughly two dozen community partners that are coordinating food assistance and volunteering at the school-based pantries, Bonelli said.

“One of the things we want to do is eliminate stigma and make these pantries as accessible as possible,” she said.

Taste testing

At the same time, new student clubs are launching to engage elementary school students in healthy cooking, taste testing and fitness, while older students and parents are being invited to help develop new ideas and approaches for ensuring families are food secure. New murals are also taking shape outside of school cafeterias to promote healthy food choices, Bonelli said.

As part of the pilot, the state department of education and Michigan Food Bank Council will focus on the policy level, looking at the type of food offered in school cafeterias and vending machines and how to get federally funded school meals to low-income students when school is unexpectedly closed on snow days, Bonelli said.

“We used to program just to one person who raised their hand” for
help, she said. “To redirect so many resources to create this health ecosystem is very different.”

The Best Food Forward pilot aligned perfectly with the in-school meal programs and other hunger assistance and healthy living efforts already in place at the Warren district, said Superintendent Robert Livernois.

Some families, however, won’t come forward for a free lunch, though, he said, which was one of the drivers that led him to pursue the wraparound support included in the pilot.

“We’ve known for a long time that a nourished student is a learning student,” Livernois said, since hungry students can’t focus or learn.

The pilot “was an opportunity to take that same thinking and expand it to our community at large,” he said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Over time, it will be interesting to see if there are differences in areas like discipline, attendance and educational performance at the schools participating in the pilot vs. those that are not, he said.

The Michigan Department of Education can provide meals to children through the federal school meal programs, “but when their parents are hungry, there’s very little I can do for them,” said Diane Golzynski, director of health and nutrition.

In early conversation, she, Gleaners CEO Gerry Brisson and Phil Knight, head of the Food Bank Council, “were picturing a world where families and children don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” she said.

The department is looking for health improvement with reduced stress for the whole family, improved academic outcomes for students and overall improvement of the district’s culture, with parents feeling more welcomed and getting more involved.

“This pilot is really helping us better define how we talk to districts and what they need to hear from us,” Golzynski said.

“I don’t know of anyone else doing this kind of work,” she said.

“When I talk with other states about this … they all look at me wide-eyed and say (they) can’t wait to hear more.”

Contact:; (313) 446-1694; @SherriWelch