We Can’t Have a Strong America with Weak Kids

Hunger, by its very nature, takes bites out of academic success. When a child is hungry, it impacts that child’s ability to learn. It’s harder to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, it’s difficult to focus on reading, and to regulate behavior. A chronically hungry child is worried when and where their next meal will come from.

I had written the above words and then met Billy Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Actually, we didn’t really meet and Mr. Shore has no clue who I am. I was just one in the crowd when he stepped out to the podium the day after the Awards of Excellence celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s just that he was so engaging, funny, and thoughtful that I felt like we met. He said a lot of important things in his speech but what has stuck with me is this: “We can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

In America, there are 11 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade who live in poverty. That is, as Mr. Shore pointed out, a lot of children coming to school in a state of distress, sitting at their desks “fundamentally compromised in their learning…plopping them in front of a great teacher” does not solve the problem. If anything, it is, in the eyes of Mr. Shore “setting children up to fail.”

Since 2003, here in Kalamazoo we have learned that if we can send kids home with food on Fridays, they return to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn.

Thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Friday Foodpacks have been one of the “tools” CIS Site Coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help. Just last school year, 750 elementary students received a weekly foodpack while food pantries served students in El Sol Elementary and all six secondary schools.

As third grade Kalamazoo Public School teacher P.J. Bucholtz puts it, “No amount of love in the world can fill an empty tummy.” Only food can do that. And it is only because of the efforts of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Anne Lipsey, the entire KLF staff and their board that our Site Coordinators, with the support of many organizations and volunteers can get Friday Foodpacks into the hands–and tummies–of our hungriest of children. For students like Charles (not his real name), it can make all the difference.

Identified this year by his CIS Site Coordinator as someone who could benefit fromFriday Foodpacks, Charles was looking forward to receiving his pack. At the same time, it so happened his school, like many schools, was engaged in a food drive. So when Friday arrived and his Site Coordinator gave him his first ever foodpack, he informed her he was going to donate all of it to the food drive. After all, he knows what it feels like to be hungry. He is hungry a lot. Weekends especially.

She looked into eager eyes and in her wisdom said, “How about this time you pick one thing from your bag to donate? Just this one time, okay?”

He loved the idea. So, he parted with one item and then went home, with dignity and food still in his pack.

Upon hearing this story, CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery replied, “Loaves & Fishes is about feeding hungry people, but it is also about dignity.” How true. One of the hunger stories noted on the KLF website quotes someone as saying, “KLF volunteers always made me feel like somebody instead of nothing.” Our Site Coordinators and community volunteers are doing the same thing within the schools. Providing both access to food and embodying the KLF values: respect, diversity & inclusion, stewardship & accountability, integrity, collaboration, urgency, and service.

By working through us within the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes taps into the heart of one of our values or what we refer to as a “CIS basic”:  that all children deserve a healthy start in life. And, for one little boy, who, according to the Site Coordinator is now eating every last crumb in his pack, it spoke to another CIS basic, the opportunity to give back to peers and community.

We are thankful for the ongoing commitment of members of this community who make it possible for our children to arrive to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn. Milwood Christian Reformed Church (MRC helped pilot this program back in 2003) both carry out the foodpack distribution at Milwood Elementary and financially support this program. And when MCR volunteers Helen Anderson and Thelma Vantill go on vacation they find people from the church to step in while they’re gone. Mt. Zion financially supports the foodpacks at Northglade. Workers who are part of the MRC Industries sheltered workshop pack food into bags for Edison and Spring Valley each week. Out at other KPS schools, our kids rely on CIS volunteers like Allison Leonard (Parkwood Upjohn), Rose Blackwood (Prairie Ridge), and Cortney Afton (Lincoln) to make sure the packs get to kids in time for the weekend.

CIS Site Coordinator Leslie Poucher Pratt refers to these foodpack volunteers as “All Stars.” We couldn’t agree more.

Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier, says we still need a number of volunteers to help deliver foodpacks to children within several schools. So, if you or someone you know may want to volunteer, click here.

There is, Mr. Shore reminds us, much work to be done when it comes to eradicating child hunger. Until then, we will only be as strong as our weakest child.

A version of Charles’ story first ran in Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes newsletter. You can find it here.


Today’s post comes from Emily Kobza, our Director of Development & Business Engagement. This is now her third post (and second unsolicited) for Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids so I have asked her to relinquish her “guest” blogger title and officially be a blogger for us. Cross your fingers!

When I was growing up, one of the major TV networks used to advertise its Friday night line-up as “TGIF” – Thank Goodness It’s Friday! I used to look forward to that special night all week long. Not only did I get to watch my favorite shows, but Friday also meant I got to stay up a little later, sleep in a little longer the next morning, and I had a whole glorious weekend to read books or play outside.

As an adult, that feeling hasn’t totally gone away. I love what I do during the week, but I still look forward to Fridays, although it’s not because I get to watch a new episode of Family Matters!  Even though we’re adults, we still measure the week’s progress towards the weekend.  It’s gotten to the point where Wednesday is a big day because we’re halfway to Friday! And while we might have errands to run, kids to take to friends’ houses, or bills to pay, the weekends still bring all of us a little refreshment before returning to work or school on Monday.

Some students, however, look forward to Friday for a very different reason. One of our Site Coordinators, Derek Miller, recently recounted how he had some students counting down the days until Friday. “Only three more days until Friday, Mr. Miller! Only three more days!” Thinking that there must be something very special happening on that day, Derek asked “What’s so special about Friday?” The reply:  “That’s when you give us food!”

The food these students are referring to are the Friday Food Packs that our partner,Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, makes available to students with the support of volunteers and the organization of our Site Coordinator. Each week, approximately 650 elementary students receive a food pack, filled with nutritious, easy-to-prepare food that kids can make and eat over the weekend. With a number of KPS students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch, many students eat most of their week’s meals at school, which means Friday could be kind of a scary day.

In addition to the Friday food packs, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes makes it possible for our Site Coordinators to operate a food pantry in six secondary schools and one elementary school. Our Site Coordinators work to help connect families to the larger community food pantry system to address food security issues. Food Security is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger. Approximately one in six households (17.2 million Americans) is considered food insecure, reporting that they are worried food will run out, that they can not afford a balanced meal, that they have to cut meal size or skip it all together and that they are hungry but do not eat.

This week, as I count down to Friday, I will be reminded of how grateful I am for our partners, volunteers, and Site Coordinators who make Fridays (and every day) a good day for our kids.