Cooking up a unique solution to childhood hungerFood Bank of Eastern Michigan operates a one-of-its kind kitchen and delivers 6,000 meals every day

One by one they step in line and one by one they’re fed.
Such tender hearts, they should not fear of what may lie ahead.
But do they know who makes their bread or who of us will pay?
All they know is sweet the taste that takes their hunger away.

BEECHER, Michigan—Samuel Berry Sr. pulls the truck into the rear parking lot at the Beecher-Vera B. Rison Library along Coldwater Road. This is one of seven daily stops for Berry, a summer food culinary driver transporting meals to mobile sites for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
On the front lawn, kids run and jump rope. “Mr. Sam,” as he is called, makes his way to where they are and joins in, displaying his own rope jumping skills. Though he is there for only 20 minutes or so a day, the kids in this summer program know Berry.  He’s the man with the smile on his face and the one who brings them lunch. “When they start learning my name, they’ll be jumping and waving. They’ll be calling my name when I pull up,” says Berry. It’s his job to feed these children, to engage with them, and prepare them for the nutrition-based activity by the two-person team that follows Berry from site to site.
“They never know how many meals they’re going to get that day and when they’re going to get that meal,” says Berry. Nor do the children know the organization and effort that has gone into preparing and delivering this meal. They don’t know the giving and caring that is being shared.
Feeding these children is part of the Summer Food Service Program funded by the USDA and the Michigan Department of Education where the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan produces about 6,000 meals per day in the kitchen at the food bank’s facility off Howard Avenue in Flint. It is a massive effort incorporating many hands and a state-of-the-art production kitchen—a kitchen that is the only one of its kind in Michigan operated by a food bank.

Vivian Kelly-Seabron (left) and Nick Curell make roast beef wraps in the production kitchen at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint.

This is a kitchen with a purpose. It builds on fresh ingredients to network throughout the community to feed children all summer and all year as part of this kitchen’s commitment to ending hunger.

Joe Mounger is the vice-president of finance and culinary services for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. “With the Summer Food Service Program, we are trying to fill the gap for kids that receive free and reduced lunches from the school district,” he says. “So for many of those kids, that’s the meal they depend on. The (program) is here to feed children in need throughout the summer months who depend on the national lunch program to fill the need for both breakfast and lunch.”
According to Shannon Mallory, director of culinary services for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, the mobile program has expanded to 23 sites in Genesee County. A major issue in feeding children during the summer when they are no longer in school is finding them.

The Food Bank uses sites such as Boys and Girls Clubs, community centers, even some school districts that are running programs to identify where the kids are going to be during the summer.
Scott Smith, a culinary site monitor, loads peppers into a slicer in the production kitchen at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint.
 Summer On The Run is a program within the Summer Food Service Program in Flint where the Food Bank has partnered with housing complexes and other community centers to also serve meals from the food truck where the children are—instead of trying to get the kids to go to a specific destination or summer activity.  “Not all kids have access to that so we’re trying to find ways to feed as many kids as possible,” says Mounger.

The Food Bank also works with the Genesee Intermediate School District to find children who need their help and even go door-to-door, handing out 5,000 flyers and canvassing neighborhoods near the mobile sites. The food bank hired 12 additional staff members through a grant they were awarded to help them market and get the word out.
The Food Bank hired head chef and production manager Dustin Marshall to produce recipe-based, “from scratch” meals in the gleaming state-of-the-art, stainless steel production kitchen. It is here that Marshall can be found roasting sweet potatoes in one of the many commercial ovens in place and where whole-breast chicken sandwiches or roast beef wraps are created. It’s where team leader Deanna Johnson might be making pasta salad on a given day.

 “The mission of the food bank is to feed the hungry and to help with food insecurity,” she says. “When you see the impact throughout the year, you can’t help but realize these kids would go without meals throughout the summer if you didn’t continue to provide meals in the gap of school,” says Mallory.

Mallory’s job gives her the opportunity to oversee the operations of the kitchen and to direct the culinary program but also to witness the food being received by the children. “I come from the corporate world so it’s actually nice (to get into the field). I can see the people aspect instead of the dollar sign aspect. It’s nice as the program director get to go to sites and see the kids eating a meal. That’s really impactful. It’s interesting to go where some of the kids have never seen broccoli.”
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan originally contracted with companies outside Genesee County to provide the meals they needed. By hiring its own culinary crew, the Food Bank is able to produce the highest quality food and have a faster response time. “It was in our best interest and a decision by the board and the leadership team to build the kitchen as a part of the hunger solution,” says Mounger.

It is different. It is innovative. And, it works. 
“In the state, we are the only food bank that does a child nutrition program in our own production kitchen,” says Mounger.
And, seeing is believing, Mallory says. 

“For us, you just realize we have to be involved. It has to be (a situation) where you’re thinking about the kid with an all-year kind of mindset,” she says.  “And nutrition is so important for kids. That’s my passion. You don’t want that gap to happen.”

Samuel Berry Sr. loads his truck at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint before beginning his run to seven mobile sites in Flint, Mt. Morris Township and Davison. The bags contain individually packaged meals.
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Read more articles by Bruce Edwards.