Weekend Food Program Helps Fill Gap and Bellies  

Published on January 12, 2024 in ,

Since Hospitality House opened its doors in 2002, the client-choice food pantry has been determined to meet the needs of the local community.

The organization’s Weekend Food Program, which provides a weekend’s worth of food to children who are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program, is a continuation of that mission.

The program was piloted with two Walled Lake schools in 2022 and has since expanded to 10 schools with three more being onboarded during the 2023/2024 school year.

In our region, 39% of families struggle to afford their basic needs, according to the most recent ALICE Report. As food prices continue to outpace inflation, many families are feeling the pinch of budgets stretched to the max. The Weekend Food Program provides a welcome relief.

“This program has been such a blessing for our family,” said a single mom of three whose students participated in the program. “Groceries are very expensive so getting these bags has helped our family to have more ingredients for meals and helped my kids have more options for snacks and meals. We truly appreciate this program.”

Filling a Gap

In 2023, Michigan became the fourth state to provide free universal school meals. The free breakfast and lunch for public school students will save families an estimated $850 per year but meal gaps still exist after school and on the weekend.

The Weekend Food Program is the brainchild of Michelle Brown, a former intern and current AmeriCorps VISTA staff member at Hospitality House. AmeriCorps VISTA members serve annually to alleviate poverty by helping local organizations expand their capacity to make change.

Michelle, who came to Hospitality House as an intern while working toward a master’s degree in social work, has always had a passion for helping children. When she learned about the impact of food insecurity on children, she knew more had to be done to help.

Data suggests that children’s learning outcomes suffer when they regularly experience hunger and that nearly every aspect of physical and mental function is hurt as well. Food insecurity affects concentration, memory, mood, and motor skills, all of which a child needs to be able to be successful in school, according to No Kid Hungry.

“I started calling schools to identify gaps that weren’t being met and researching what had worked well in other areas,” Michelle said.

Partnering For Good

Hospitality House, a longtime funded partner of United Way, feeds more than 960 households and distributes over 23,000 pounds of food each month.

“We’re proud to support food pantry partners like Hospitality House who are on the frontlines serving children and families,” said Emily Mueller, director, Basic Needs at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “The Weekend Food Program is a demonstration of the type of innovative gap-filling programming that makes a real difference in the lives of so many residents in our region.”

In Walled Lake, 50% of families qualify for free or reduced meals. Families can opt-in and opt-out of the Weekend Food Program at any time. Currently, 10% – around 33 students – at Walled Lake Elementary are enrolled in the program, according to the school’s principal, Julie Amann.

Julie lauds the relationship with Hospitality House and the positive impact on students and families.

“It takes a worry off of their mind,” said Julie. “And students with food insecurity truly do worry about what will be available for them when they get home.  We tell our students that we care for them and will take care of them. This is an action to help validate those words.  It truly creates trust with students that the adults will be there for them.”

Volunteer-Powered Change

Every Thursday, the board room at Hospitality House is transformed into an assembly line with a team of volunteers filling 250 bags with snacks like cookies and raisins as well as easy-to-prepare meals for students.

Each discrete drawstring backpack is packed with care and delivered by volunteers to the 10 participating schools. The backpacks are returned to Hospitality House where they can be restocked each Thursday.

“It’s a very rewarding program,” said Kathy Mack who volunteers with her son Derek as a part of his adult transition work. “We have a great process in place.”

In the coming year, Hospitality House will staff a part-time position dedicated to the Weekend Food Program, build a step-by-step guide on the process, and establish a core base of volunteers so that the program can be expanded to other districts.

Want to help the Weekend Food Program? The team is seeking individually packaged meals and snacks as well as direct donations. Contact michelle@hhfp.org for more information.