When school closes, the threat of childhood hunger rises. Whether it is a scheduled break or an unprecedented crisis—each time the doors close, 310,000 students who rely on free and reduced-price school meals are at risk of going without.
Summer is the toughest time of all, as school-age children face months away from the classroom. With the arrival of COVID-19, this great time of need came early and affected many more families than ever before. In response, Gleaners Community Food Bank quickly launched drive-up food distribution sites across the region. The work to reach kids in need helped Gleaners deepen relationships and find new partners, including Escuela Avancemos Academy in southwest Detroit where 100% of students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
Due to facility restrictions, Escuela Avancemos Academy receives its meals through another local school in the area. Two days after Governor Whitmer ordered school buildings to close, the Academy was notified that it would not be receiving meals during the state of emergency. “I was so nervous—panicked. Our families rely on us. I was not sure what we would do,” said Stephanie Yassine, Executive Director. “Families would call, saying everyone had lost their jobs. That’s when I reached out to Gleaners.”
Gleaners launched a drive-up mobile food distribution site near the Academy, which operated from March through June. “Our school has about 300 students, and we saw more than 80% of our families come through the new distribution,” said Yassine. “These families have had to cut their internet and phone services in order to have money to pay rent. And what’s left? Food is the number one issue,” said Yassine. “The families I saw at the distribution were so thankful.”
In July, Gleaners expanded its food distribution by offering daily meals for kids at Meet Up and Eat Up sites across southeast Michigan, part of the Summer Food Service Program. Through this program, Gleaners provides breakfast and lunch to students enrolled in the Academy’s daily summer school. “Families rely on school to be able to eat. It’s something you don’t think about until an emergency like this happens,” said Dahime Gordon, Site Coordinator. “This is the first time the school hosted this summer program, and Gleaners has been a really big support. I’m not sure what parents would do if this wasn’t an option.”
While this summer is drastically different for families, it also brought a shift to Gleaners’ feeding sites. “The purpose of the Summer Food Service Program is to fill the gap for kids missing school meals,” said Deb Smith, Manager of Government Nutrition Programs at Gleaners. “This year, summer came early, and we have been working with the local government and partners to understand where the need is and how we can best help.” Gleaners has adapted distribution models to safely provide meals at existing and new partner sites. This year’s program aims to help kids and families stay safe and nourished—from on-site meal deliveries to fresh grocery pickups.
“This summer is especially hard for the kids. Often, they are dropped off at camp hungry,” said Carrie German-Wright, director of Summer Jam Day Camp in Detroit. Gleaners’ staff delivers daily meals and snacks for every camper, ages two to 14 years old, participating in the Monday-Friday programming. “Things look a lot different this year, and we can’t offer all usual activities,” said German-Wright, noting all the precautions the organization has put in place, such as wearing masks and social distancing. “To get the kids out of the apartments and exercising and eating full meals—that’s important. They really enjoy the meals—both breakfast and lunch. And I know their parents appreciate it too.”
In addition to stationary sites at schools and camps, Gleaners also provides meal deliveries in low-income areas. Three refrigerated trucks drive pre-scheduled routes across southeast Michigan, delivering daily meals to kids in need.
For the past six years and counting, Gleaners has delivered meals to kids at the Gateway Townhomes complex in Romulus. Pre-pandemic, Romulus school district’s rate for students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals was 66% on average, with some schools reporting 85% or higher. “A lot of kids here at the complex and the surrounding areas do not have enough to eat—especially when schools shut down for the summer. This might be the only meal they will get for the whole day,” said Cathy McCoy, Property Manager. “It’s a comfort for kids. In the summer, their daily life is so different and unknown compared to the school year. Knowing that they can come get food means a lot to them.” McCoy is concerned about how the pandemic crisis may be affecting families in her community, yet she has reports seeing many of the usual kids show up for daily meals.
“Every child deserves a hunger free summer, and this year the need for our work to get food into the community is even greater,” said Smith. “Without dedicated food programs, many kids would spend the months away from school wondering where their next meal will come from. Together, we can help our kids have healthy meals all summer long.”
Give Kids in Need a Hunger Free Summer
To support Gleaners’ summer food distributions, you can donate to the Hunger Free Summer Plus campaign. Thanks to Citizens Bank and other generous donors—every gift made by September 7 will be matched! Just $1 provides six meals.
Find a Meet Up and Eat Up Site
Children and special needs adults ages 19-26 can receive nutritious meals at sites across Michigan. Visit Michigan Department of Education’s website to find a location near you.