Sept. 28 2011 12:00 AM

Thousands of kids could go hungrier after a food delivery program for elementary school children ends.


Over 17,000 children in Ingham County
elementary schools — the poorest of the poor, including over 1,800
children in Lansing schools alone — have lost food after a program that
provided them with food for the weekend shut down last month.

The Weekend Survival Kit program provided participating
elementary school kids with backpacks of food for the weekend twice a
month to supplement the family’s food at home, said Kathe Smith,
operations manager at the Mid-Michigan Food Bank. Children had to
participate in their elementary school’s free or reduced lunch and
breakfast program in order to qualify for a kit. The program began in

“We really determined that if a family was in need of
food that we wanted to give them a little bit extra so children were at
least eating breakfast, lunch and dinner (on the weekends),” Smith said.

The packs contained easy-to-make foods such as instant
oatmeal, ravioli and macaroni and cheese, Smith said. The foods were
picked so that young children could be able to make food for themselves
if their parents weren’t home to help them. The packs also contained
non-perishable milk that didn’t need to be refrigerated until it was
opened. Snacks include Pop-Tarts, popcorn and fruit cups.

At its peak, the program served 33
Lansing-area elementary schools, including 12 in Lansing itself, Smith
said. In the 2010-2011 school year, 17,252 children received backpack
deliveries of food, representing a 144 percent growth from the
2009-2010 school year. Of those children, 1,861 were from the Lansing
School District.

“The need was growing by leaps and bounds,” Smith said.

The Lansing elementary schools that
participated in the program last school year were Bingham, Gier Park,
North, Reo, Sheridan Road, Willow, Averill, Cumberland, Lewton, Post
Oak and Riddle. Shabazz Public School Academy and Woodcreek Magnet
School also participated.

Donors, including the city of Lansing, funded the
program, which cost about $80,000 last year, said Betsy Rueckert,
financial development officer for the Mid-Michigan Food Bank. Over
$65,000 came from donations made specifically for the Weekend Survival
Kits program. The rest came from general fund donations. The City of
Lansing is listed on the organization’s donor list as contributing
$1,000 or more, but Rueckert would not release the actual amount of the
donation or how much was for the program specifically.

The Mid-Michigan Chapter of the American Red Cross, which
operates the Mid-Michigan Food Bank as a chapter service, provided the
necessary administrators to make the Weekend Survival Kits program run
smoothly, Rueckert said. However, in August, the American Red Cross
made cuts.

“This was one place where administrative expenses could
be saved by not administering this program,” Ruekert said. “We are
still committed to feeding hungry children, we are still committed to
feeding hungry people. The process has to change.”

The Red Cross Central and Northern
Michigan region, which includes most of the state, had to cut $590,000
from its regional budget this year, said Alison Bono, regional director
of communications. The organization determined that it needed to focus
on its core programs, which do not include hunger.

“Children are still fed through the pantries, the
shelters and soup kitchens,” Bono said. “These are tough times
everywhere, and in order for the Food Bank to stay financially viable,
they’ve had to focus more on the core missions and the public as a
whole. We can’t focus on one group, unfortunately.”

But Jim Ramos, an AmeriCorps volunteer and food access
specialist for the Lansing nonprofit NorthWest Initiative, said the
program is essential. 

Ramos is determined to bring the Weekend Survival Kit
program back for Riddle Elementary School, where he delivered bags. He
hopes to restore the program to all Lansing schools.

“Children are our future. Without them we don’t exist,”
Ramos said. “You can’t have productive, intelligent people if they’re

Ramos’ personal experiences with hunger as a child
contribute to his passion for the program and his desire to see it
succeed, he said.

He remembers coming home from school to
an empty refrigerator, even if it was only temporary until his parents
came home with groceries. He remembers eating Granny Smith apples and
peanut butter for a week when his younger brother was in the hospital
and his parents forgot to buy food because they were at his bedside. He
remembers making a conscious decision not to get seconds at dinner so
his mother would have something to eat.

“If it was up to me, no kid would have to make that decision,” Ramos said.

Sylvia Hernandez, principal at Riddle, said losing the packs is “detrimental to our kids’ health.”

“We know that they come to school hungry and if they come
to school hungry it means that they don’t get much food at home,” she
said. “It gives us a piece of mind that these kids are getting a
nutritious meal at home.”

Hernandez said that kids’ eyes “light up” when Ramos and others delivered packs on Friday afternoons.

“It’s like a Christmas present come early,” she said. “The parents are happy too. It’s really a godsend for them.”

She said kids were receiving better grades and were able
to focus better in school this year because they weren’t coming to
school hungry on Monday morning after the weekend. She worried that
progress would stop if the packs were no longer delivered.

“We have so many less kids that are hungry,” Hernandez said. “It makes a difference.”

Joy Baldwin, food systems project
manager at NorthWest Initiative, said losing the survival kit program
couldn’t come at a worse time.

In October, 220,000 Michigan residents
will receive a food stamp reduction, she said. Cash assistance will
also be reduced and some people who have been depending on the program
for years to help put food on the table may lose their assistance

“Now there’s going to be even greater need for these
weekend survival backpack kits,” Baldwin said. “We’ve seen the need
with the students so that’s why we’re not willing to let (the program)

But it won’t be easy. Once-a-month
delivery for the 200 students at Riddle who participated would run a
minimum of $754, Baldwin said. A weekly delivery would increase that
number to $3,000 a month. Ramos said he is raising money to make one
delivery there in October. In the past, the children received two in

Ramos and 10 other community leaders,
including Joan Jackson Johnson, human relations director for Lansing
city government, Randy Bell of the Ingham County MSU Extension program
and Paul Shaheen from the Ingham County food systems group, met last
week to begin developing a plan to help sustain the program without
help from the American Red Cross. However, the city won’t contribute
funding until a system is in place to distribute kits throughout the
Lansing School District, not just one school, Ramos said.

Bell said he might have found a temporary solution for a
program coordinator. He proposed that one of Extension’s support staff
employees could run the program this school year to help get it back to
the 12 schools. The plan would be need approval from the Ingham County
Board of Commissioners.

“My hope would be that we can marshal what we need so we
can serve all the Lansing schools that participated in the past,” Bell
said. “This isn’t just about hunger but it’s about economics and living
in a better community.”

Shaheen donated $1,000 to NorthWest Initiative so that
Ramos could make an October delivery to Riddle School, one of the
district’s poorest.

“I feel like an outsider who’s just trying to help,”
Shaheen said. “I know from my work that hungry kids don’t learn. If we
want them to learn and succeed we have to get them what they need.”

Bell said it would take the entire
community coming together and utilizing its resources, such as
volunteer labor, donations and food drives, to ensure the program stays
self-reliant in the future.

“There’s a solution that’s going to come through with
this,” Bell said. “This is not an emergency but more of a community
call to action so we can preserve something that benefits our kids.”

Make a contribution

NorthWest Initiative is looking for food
or monetary contributions to continue the Weekend Survival Kit program
at Riddle Elementary.

Contact James Ramos at (517) 999-2894 or e-mail him at