Doing more to keep Flint kids healthy—6 times more

FLINT, Michigan—Truly, no child is being left behind.

A massive expansion of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan’s backpack program means that every single child in kindergarten through fifth grade will go home once a week with a sack full of healthy food specifically designed to help combat the effects of lead exposure.

And, with enough added in to make sure any siblings have enough to eat, too.

The expanded program is funded through a $680,000 grant from the state Department of Education—and translates into an increase from 816 backpacks in Flint to nearly 5,000, said William E. Kerr, president of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. 

Inside is good stuff to eat: Soup with veggies and protein, real fruit bars (that pretend to be kid-friendly fruit snacks), pudding and strawberry milk for some darry, even some smoked chicken sticks (they are like jerky) for some additional protein, some cereal … everything a kid would need.

So no child goes hungry.

The backpack program itself is nothing new. The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan started it back in 2004 and it now operates in every Genesee County school district (and way beyond to 168 schools total in its 22 county service area).

The Flint expansion was announced Tuesday, May 2, at Holmes STEM Academy, nestled on the edge of the historic Civic Park by officials from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, Flint Community Schools, and the Michigan Department of Education.

Smiling as he looked out over children grabbing their backpacks of food, Flint Superintendent Bilal Tawwab noted that the backpack program is going to all kids impacted by the Flint water crisis—those who enroll in Flint Community Schools and those who go to other schools.

Because this is about Flint’s kids. All Flint’s kids.  

“We have got to come together and stand behind each other, all neighbors and institutions. That’s how this is going to get done,” Tawwab said. “We do it by working together and being about the business of making sure every child in Flint is set up for success.”

The schools continue to serve meals at school four days a week throughout the summer, and Tawwab also announced that weekend service now will be available through the food bank's mobile units. 

“There was a gap in feeding programs at our schools, in fact you won’t find a federal program nationwide that provides food to children over the weekend, so we are able to step in to fill that gap.” said Kathleen Payton, sponsorship manager at the food bank who helped launch the backpack program in 2004.  

Michigan Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Kyle Guerrant said the backpack program is one of several interventions, including school nurses and social workers, being funded by the state.

“What I think is important is that the nutritional aspect is one component of how we’re trying to help kids who may have been exposed,” Guerrant said. “We want to team up with residents and have them know there is a broader investment here. … We’re looking to eliminate all potential health barriers to learning.”

Kerr says the strength of the backpack program relies on a huge volunteer effort—“which I am proud to say has really risen to the occasion.” 

The food bank delivers the food to schools but it takes schools, parents and volunteers to get the bags ready for students every week. 

Ashley Liddell-Ruffin, a Holmes mom and the acting Holmes Family Engagement Facilitator, said it takes a lot of hands helping a little to make the program work. At Holmes alone, they pack 456 backpacks every week. It works like an assembly line, with some volunteers just doing a few minutes at a time as they can before school and at pickup. 

“We fill those bags every week,” Liddell-Ruffin said proudly, “but it isn’t just a feeding program. We are bringing families together and working together to help each other—and that, in turn, helps the community.”

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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