Nourishing the Bodies and Minds of Grand Rapids Youth

There are several reasons Michigan has garnered attention over the years, from sweeping landscapes and leisurely beaches to historical contributions in design and technology to its robust culture of food and drink. A lesser-known fact is that one in five Michigan children are affected by hunger — a startling statistic, and one that the Grand Rapids-based Kids Food Basket organization is actively trying to combat. While Grand Rapids is commonly thought to be an affluent community, there is also a prevalence of extreme poverty.

It all began in 2002, when the principal of Sibley School discovered students rummaging in the school’s garbage cans for food to take home for dinner. She connected with Mary K. Hoodhood, a dedicated volunteer at the Meals on Wheels agency in their area. Hoodhood felt compelled to get involved and was able to find a a small amount of seed money to get the project started.

Meanwhile, over at Aquinas College, Bridget Clark Whitney was taking a course that required her to find an unmet need in the community, gather resources, and meet that need. She learned of Hoodhood’s efforts to launch what would become Kids Food Basket and immediately got involved. After gaining 501(c)(3) status in 2002, the organization began serving 125 kids at three Grand Rapids schools.

In Whitney’s words, “There were challenges that arose fairly quickly after the organization launched that still exist today. The most persistent is the enormous need that exceeds the organization’s current funding. Despite the fact that the agency currently serves an astounding 28,700 kids in Kent County, it is still only 21 percent of the community need.”

In response to this gap between supply and demand, Whitney has brilliantly continued to plan for the future so the organization can sustain its impact and efficiently feed an increasing number of children. To accomplish this, Whitney began researching other food equity programs and discovered that teaching kids how to grow their own food rendered extraordinary results, specifically in helping youth understand the benefits and importance of eating healthily.

With the help of a donor, the organization purchased the last remaining farmland in Grand Rapids and a five-acre plot of land next to it, which they plan to make into a production site and an education center, respectively.

There are currently 17 schools on the agency’s waitlist, which Whitney says keeps her up at night and gets her out of bed in the morning.

“We realize how important this work is and the extraordinary impact we stand to make. When kids are nourished, they are sick less often, and they show increased academic achievements. Easing this need will empower children for the rest of their lives, and because of this, it is our responsibility to grow,” says Whitney.

What is perhaps most exceptional about Kids Food Basket is the way its leaders have not only thoroughly researched the roots of this critical human issue and how to alleviate it, but that they have also identified both short- and long-term ways to make a difference right now.

Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff made a poignant statement during his commencement speech at Calvin College years ago. He said, “The eye of the mind without the eye of the heart is heartless competence. The eye of the heart without the eye of the mind is mindless empathy. You need both eyes, both the eye of the mind and the eye of the heart, both the eye of discernment and the eye of compassion.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe the tremendous work this organization is doing and will continue to do.

Grand Rapids Kids Food Basket  2055 Oak Industrial Drive, NE #C, Grand Rapids, MI 49505 l (616) 235-4532 l KidsFoodBasket.org