GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — "Your neighbors need you right now. Your neighbors potentially need you more than ever." Those are the words of Bridget Clark Whitner, the president and founding CEO of Kids' Food Basket. The non-profit is well known for sending sack suppers home to West Michigan school children. Those free, well-balanced meals serve the areas most vulnerable children, many of whom would otherwise not have food at home to eat.
"18 years ago, Kids' Food Basket started with a $3,000 gift. When you start an organization with $3,000, you learn a lot of tenacity. We built a lot of grit and we know how to be strategic and we know how to be creative," she said.
Clark Whitney and her staff are relying heavily on that grit and creativity right now. The organization has been in emergency response mode for several weeks ever Michigan schools closed due the COVID-19 global pandemic.
"We are seeing more and more need and as the schools now are continuing to be shut down for the foreseeable future. And, it's even more important that we're increasing our access to healthy nourishing food for our children and for our families," says Clark Whitney. "There are over 75,000 children that receive free or reduced school meals, each and every weekday, so we were acutely aware of a huge need for the kind of work that we do prior to this crisis starting. Now, many of the families we were serving - and many that we weren't previously serving - have lost wages. Many families are now finding themselves struggling even more. So, the need for an organization like Kids' Food Basket is not just critical right now, but will be critical and a post-COVID world as well."
Clark Whitney says Kids' Food Basket serves more than 8,800 kids at 52 schools were 70% or more of the student population receive free or reduced-cost lunch. It ordinarily utilizes the help of more than 300 volunteers prepare, pack and deliver sack suppers in four counties: Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa and Allegan. However, the non-profit has had to reduce the number of volunteers since Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a Stay at Home executive order.
"So typically our model is engagement. We want the entire West Michigan community to be involved in nourishing our children to be their best, but due to this virus and in the extreme importance of health and safety and social distancing, we've had to significantly limit our volunteerism," she said. "We only have our staff members working to put together meals. We have made the difficult decision to no longer have volunteers on site. However, we do have volunteers who are helping us distribute meals and deliver meals to our distribution sites. We don't want any viruses in this building, and it's absolutely critical for Kids' Food Basket that we continue to be able to provide services. So we're taking as many measures as possible to put health and safety, and community number one."
In a span of roughly 3 weeks, Kids' Food Basket will have passed out nearly 100,000 meals to area children. Clark Whitney says in order to continue the organization needs the community to help meet the growing need.
"Well it's varying a little bit per day. We are hoping to be on target for about 40,000 meals for the week," she says. "Right now we need our community to step forward, and support Kids' Food Basket with monetary gifts. Every single dollar will go towards our emergency response. If you can think of every single dollar as a healthy nourishing meal, every single dollar makes a difference."
Clark Whitney says those unable to give a monetary gift can still help.
"Take some time, at home, in the safety of your home and decorate brown paper bags. Those brown paper bags are a touch of love and they do make all the difference," she says. "You can easily and safely do them from the comfort of your home, pop them in the mail and we'll use them once they get here to Kids' Food Basket."
The decorated paper bags have become a signature feature of the sack suppers and something children have grown to love. Clark Whitney says they're taking extra steps to make sure they are virus-free.
"So we have done some research on that and we know that the virus can live on paper for about 48 hours and can live on cardboard. So, once they come into the building, they do not get touched for 48 hours. After 48 hours we'll be able to use those," she said. "When kids get that sack supper bag, and it's been decorated, they feel that touch of love, they know that someone out there, has created that for them. They know someone has taken the time to say, 'Hey, I care.' That makes all the difference in the world, especially right now."
Clark Whitney says it is critical for the community to come together and care for citizens who need them most.
"Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of humanity. Right. Nothing like this. We all need to dig deep and go through a tremendous amount of personal growth right now all of us from our small children all the way up to our seniors. We need to rely on one another. We need to help people in ways that we've never helped one another before and we need to rely on community," she said. "This stuff is tough, but we're tougher. And when we can show that we care for one another and we come together as community, we can get through this one day at a time."
Kids' Food Basket is accepting monetary donations to go towards its ongoing emergency response efforts. Donations can be made by Text to Give. Text "KFB" to 56651 to donate.
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