More than just a meal: United Way and partners build a healthier, happier summer

It’s just after 10 a.m. on a Friday, and Mellisa Burrell’s one-year-old granddaughter Raylynn is already tugging at her hip and telling her that it’s time to go.

Raylynn is ready for lunch. But her eagerness isn’t necessarily tied to hunger. She knows that lunchtime means a trip to Gateway Garden.

At United Way, we work to ensure that all families can meet their basic needs, including food access. In our work in summer food accessibility, we’ve shifted from expanding awareness of meal sites to improving the quality and effectiveness of sites.

Gateway Garden is a community garden and Meet Up and Eat Up site where free lunches are provided by Forgotten Harvest. It’s also one of the sites where United Way for Southeastern Michigan hosted a beautification project in June.

At Gateway Garden, the investment has paid off.

Pastor Glenda Fields hosts the site and says that kids have always been drawn to it. But now, the efforts of local volunteers and teams from our partners Deloitte and GM have made it a much more beautiful and inviting place.

“It was really amazing to see the transformation,” Glenda said. “I mean, you see things like this on television, but you never think it can happen here.”

Additional locations where volunteer efforts made an impact this summer include: Heilmann Recreation Center, Latino Family Services and Douglass Library.

Pastor Glenda Fields tends to the Meet Up and Eat Up site at Gateway Garden. “You see things like this on television, but you never think it can happen here,” Glenda said.

New paths to growth and engagement

In our region, only 17 percent of the children who are eligible for free and reduced-cost meals actually access those meals during the summer.

For the past several summers, United Way hosted Meet Up and Eat Up block parties. At these huge events, people could learn more about their local meal sites while enjoying food and activities. The goal was to grow awareness of and participation at the sites in our region.

In 2018, our Meet Up and Eat Up partners served 1,214,963 summer meals. Still, there was plenty of room for growth.

“We saw the number of meals plateau and we knew there was more we could do,” said Katherine Fuller, health and basic needs manager at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “There was still a huge gap in the number of kids eligible for meals and the number of kids participating in the program.”

Katherine and her team decided to meet with the dozens of site sponsors across the region to learn how we could best support their programs and goals.

As a result of this involvement, United Way is shifting from simply growing awareness of food sites to strategically making grants that both grow participation and improve the quality of meals and programming. We’re also aligning our volunteer work to help sponsors improve their sites in a variety of ways to make the biggest impact.

This summer, United Way issued $250,000 in mini-grants to seven meal sponsors for innovative and strategic projects to support program growth. We also gave grants to four additional organizations to provide enrichment support at meal sites.

Filling a much-needed gap

Kids who rely on free and reduced-priced lunches during the school year are at higher risk of going hungry in the summer.

“For the community, summer meal programs really do fill a gap,” Katherine said. On average, parents who participate in the Meet Up and Eat Up program save around $300 on food during the summer.

Raylynn and her siblings, cousins and aunt join between 12 to 25 other children at Gateway Garden daily for healthy meals and educational fun.

For Mellisa, lunchtime at Gateway Garden offers not only a monetary break but a mental respite as well.

“My kids love it and it gives me time to take a little break and prepare dinner and know that they’re in a safe space with nutritious food and that they’re also learning something,” she said.

Mellisa also participated in the beautification effort as a way to give back to the community and thank Glenda for all her hard work.

Angela Beckman, director of volunteer engagement at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, guides a young volunteer during a recent project at Gateway Garden.

Volunteers make the difference

Several years ago, Gateway Garden was a weed-ridden plot of vacant land. When Glenda looks out at the garden now, she is amazed. Volunteers installed new raised beds, planted perennials and added mulch to make the garden easier to maintain.

They also painted a brightly-colored sign at the entrance. It highlights Gateway Garden as the place Glenda always knew it could be: a refuge for those in need; a place that always gives more than it takes.

“I’m so thankful,” Glenda said of the volunteers’ efforts. “It’s more than my family could’ve ever dreamed to accomplish on our own.”

Since the makeover, the lush and relaxing garden is brimming with summertime favorites like strawberries and squash. It’s overflowing with garden staples like tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s even home to unique varieties of edible flowers, which the kids love.

Volunteers move dirt, keeping the Meet Up and Eat Up site at Gateway Garden tidy.

More than a meal

There are about 700 Meet Up and Eat Up sites across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties this summer. Each, like Gateway Garden, provides more than just a meal; they offer a safe and engaging place for kids to connect with peers and caring adults and have fun.

For Mellisa and Glenda, it’s a return to simpler times.

“There’s something about getting out from behind a screen,” Glenda said. “Getting outside and getting your hands dirty does something for the spirit.”

Each day, Glenda encourages the children with activities and lessons about the food in the garden. She’s hoping to encourage healthy eating habits by teaching them about where food comes from.

Her efforts are already paying off. When students receive a bag of carrots in their lunch, they’re more likely to eat them because they’ve already learned about them and helped nurture the veggies from seed to harvest, she said.

Bringing neighbors together

Gateway Garden offers free fruits and veggies to other people in the community. This acts as a source of communion for the neighborhood.

“I’ve had the opportunity to connect with people that I may not have otherwise crossed paths with,” Mellisa said.

Glenda uses a neighborhood app to spread the word. Also, people stop by to help because the space is inviting and they want to learn more.

Glenda welcomes their efforts with open arms.

Earlier this summer, severe flooding in Detroit damaged the garden. United Way is working with partners to plan another Beautification Day in August to assist with the damage.

“There’s still work to do, but everything that’s happened is a blessing,” Glenda said.

Ready to get involved? Visit our volunteer portal for more information on upcoming volunteer activities.