Your daughter’s classmate. Your son’s soccer teammate. Your neighbor. It doesn’t matter where you live or where your children attend school, hunger and food insecurity could be impacting someone in your social network.
“Hunger doesn’t discriminate,” says Stacy Averill, the senior director of marketing at Gleaners Community Food Bank, which provides food services to people living in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe and Livingston counties. “It’s a silent issue. There are food-insecure people living in every single county in southeast Michigan.”
From senior citizens living on fixed incomes and employed parents whose wages don’t cover all of life’s necessities to a family who has fallen on hard times due to illness – support is needed right in your backyard.
“Most people don’t want to talk about the fact that they need this kind of support, that they are in a situation where they can’t provide for their families and they can’t put food on the table,” she says.
But many families are food insecure, and that’s why Gleaners works tirelessly to chip away at hunger in the community by partnering with hundreds of organizations, including Milk Means More, which represents Michigan dairy farmers. It has been a perfect match for these two organizations.
“One of our employees actually came to us four years ago and said, ‘We really need milk. Our families we’re talking to out in the community are asking for it,’ and we looked into it and milk is one of the most requested but least donated items in the food bank network in the nation,” Averill says. “Of the people that we serve, the food bank network gives a gallon of milk per person per year.”
Gleaners and the dairy industry are working hard to change that statistic.
“Milk is a great source of nutrition, especially for growing kids, and so we wanted to find ways to get more milk into the community and the dairy farmers in Michigan really stood next to us and said, ‘You know what? Let us help you.'”
And that’s just what they did. Today, Gleaners is distributing eight truckloads of milk to its partner network each month.
Milk is just one part of a nutritious meal, Averill says, but it’s something that families should be drinking daily. “Milk and dairy foods are a part of the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations,” she adds. Milk provides a unique nutrient package difficult to find in other foods. Without milk, the majority of children do not meet their calcium and Vitamin D needs, especially important during growth.
At school, children can take advantage of the nutritious lunch options available – and those with food insecurity can have healthy meals at low or no cost.
In southeast Michigan, 1 in 5 children struggle with hunger or food insecurity.
“Just over 300,000 kids in southeast Michigan rely on free or reduced meals at schools,” she says. “They rely on the school to give them their nutrition for two-thirds of the day.”
Many of those same children struggle at home in the evening, on weekends and during school breaks as they do not have consistent, nutritious meals at home. In an effort to help some of those students, Gleaners has a weekend backpack program – which has 70 participating schools that receive backpacks filled with food on Fridays for kids to take home.
Nutritious meals are integral to students’ success. Those who are hungry are less likely to concentrate or focus during class, which hinders their ability to learn from teachers and even interact with peers. Some of these children could end up having behavioral problems due to irritability from hunger, Averill adds.
“We talk to teachers and school administrators who see kids and students who struggle with food insecurity also have higher absentee rates,” she says. “All of these things add up to make it so that kids are given a smaller springboard to be successful and to become adults who are ready for the workforce.”
Nutrition every day
Habits learned early in life are going to stick with children longer, Averill says. That’s why leading by example is key. Practicing a nutritious lifestyle as parents encourages children to follow suit.
Sit down as a family to eat and normalize mealtime, she adds. “It’s a great time to spend time together but also to get that nutrition every day and create healthy relationships between each other and food.”
Make food fun by starting a garden or even growing herbs on your windowsill – something Averill started doing at home. It can make cooking and sharing healthy meals fun for kids if they are involved in helping grow the food and make the meal, she adds.
And because education is integral, talk to children about hunger and its prevalence. For instance, kids that benefit from weekend backpack programs may be stigmatized by other students. Teach them to be supportive of others who may have families temporarily or routinely struggling. Give back through organizations like Gleaners by visiting gcfb.org for volunteer opportunities.
Brought to you by Michigan Dairy Farm Families. Learn more at milkmeansmore.org.