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For kids, a successful school year starts with food

Four students from Siersma Elementary School showcase food available through Gleaners Community Food Bank's School Food Mobile launched at their school in March 2019 as part of the Best Food Forward initiative.
Four students from Siersma Elementary School showcase food available through Gleaners Community Food Bank's School Food Mobile launched at their school in March 2019 as part of the Best Food Forward initiative.

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DETROIT – Kids are more likely to misbehave in class, need additional education services and mental health support in school, and even repeat a grade, if they are hungry. To raise a healthy child, the whole family needs to be food secure to improve academic achievement, health, behavior and family stability.

"No matter how good that lesson is or how amazing the teacher is, [kids] cannot learn if they are hungry. They cannot come to school and be the very best learner they can be if they're worried about safety at home or where their next meal is coming from," said Diane Golzynski, registered dietician and director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

To help more students get a successful start to school this fall, Gleaners Community Food Bank launched its Hunger Free Summer campaign in June. Citizens Bank and other generous donors continue to match donations made to Gleaners dollar-for-dollar until school is back in session for all students through Labor Day, September 2, 2019. During the campaign, every dollar given provides six meals for a hungry child.

As children return to school, local emergency food providers, schools and government agencies have been working together to answer the question: What would happen if all the children and their families in a school district were fully food secure?

Recognized as Feeding America's 2019 Food Bank of the Year for its innovative programs, Gleaners joined the MDE, Food Bank Council of Michigan, Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, Warren Consolidated Schools (Warren), Westwood Heights Schools (Flint) and Wayne State University to launch the pilot program Best Food Forward.

Gleaners Community Food Bank, leadership from Warren Consolidated Schools and Siersma Elementary School students celebrate the launch of the School Food Mobile in March 2019, a component of the Best Food Forward initiative.
Gleaners Community Food Bank, leadership from Warren Consolidated Schools and Siersma Elementary School students celebrate the launch of the School Food Mobile in March 2019, a component of the Best Food Forward initiative.

The first of its kind in the country, Best Food Forward takes a holistic approach to achieve food security for every child within a school district – at school, at home and in the community. Results of the pilot, both short- and long-term, will inform a scalable, replicable model for counties across Michigan.

In Warren, for example, the school district is comprised of 21 schools, averaging a free or reduced-cost lunch rate of 68%. However, from school to school, the range can vary from 49% to as high as 90%.

"It's very difficult to teach kids and to focus on literacy skills when some of their basic needs are not being met," said John Bernia, chief academic officer at Warren Consolidated Schools. "We want to make sure we're doing all we can as a community resource to support kids and support families. And that's why it was so compelling for us to get involved in Best Food Forward."

Through partners, students, committees, support networks and focused communications, the goal is to engage kids and families districtwide, particularly with food, to establish a collaborative model with inclusion, diversity and cultural appropriateness as cornerstones of community support. Wayne State University will follow participating families for 10 years to evaluate program successes and areas for improvement.

"You can't have a food-secure child if you don't have a food-secure household," said Gerry Brisson, president and CEO of Gleaners. "The sooner food security is addressed for a household in need, the greater the benefit to that household and the community at large. We know hunger can be solved if we work together."

The pilot takes advantage of programs Gleaners already executes effectively and efficiently – such as its Summer Food Service Program, My Neighborhood Mobile Grocery, School Food Mobile program, BackPack program and others – combined with other nutrition education programs, school meal programs, environmental and wellness policy enhancements, and student engagement.

In the short-term, program partners seek to improve access to healthy food for the whole family and decrease the trade-off of food to pay household bills. In the longer term, the goal is to achieve full family food security to improve household stability, mental health, school attendance and academics with improved student engagement, increased math and reading proficiency and fewer behavioral interventions.

To help prevent the effects of hunger on child learning, Gleaners continues to invite the community to donate to Hunger Free Summer to help keep kids across the community ready to learn as they return to school. To learn more about this and other Gleaners programs, visit gcfb.org.