Johnny Cannon, president of operations at food service company CanStrong, still remembers the excitement he felt as a child walking to the park near his home on the east side of Detroit to play games and grab lunch with his friends in the summer. Each year, he looked forward to participating in the summer meals program.
Now, as an adult, he’s come full circle. Johnny is a vendor for Meet Up and Eat Up, a community-driven initiative geared toward ending hunger by making sure that kids have access to healthy meals three times a day, all year long. His business provides more than 10,000 meals each day to children in Greater Detroit throughout the summer.
Located on a Southfield street lined with nondescript office buildings and warehouses, the CanStrong facilities appear quiet from the exterior. But inside, employees are bustling from the early hours of the morning, preparing the day’s Meet Up and Eat Up meals. Johnny, with his laid-back demeanor and infectious smile, helps oversee it all.
“For me, it’s about instilling in my staff here the importance of what we’re doing every day,” Johnny said. “It’s not just a job. We’re on a mission.”
In Michigan, one in five children struggles to access the nutritious foods they need to grow and thrive. With Meet Up and Eat Up, United Way for Southeastern Michigan and our partners are working to change that.
United Way’s primary objective with Meet Up and Eat Up is to put an end to childhood hunger. An unexpected positive benefit has been the impact on community businesses that work with us.
“This is exactly what United Way does — we bring people together,” said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, the Senior Director of Community Impact in Financial Stability at United Way. “Meet Up and Eat Up is powerful because it not only feeds families, but it’s also helping to build local food vendors’ revenues so they can employ more people. Meet Up and Eat Up feeds families and the local economy.”
For many of the Meet Up and Eat Up vendors, including CanStrong in Southfield, Edibles Rex in Detroit and Unique Food Management in Pontiac, this program has allowed them to keep staff members employed through the summer. Because these companies work with schools to supply lunches during the academic year, summer used to mean dozens of workers would be out of work June through August — but not anymore.
Because of Meet Up and Eat Up, Unique Food Management — which provides meals daily to about 10 stationary sites and 30 mobile sites — has not only been able to keep its staff on the payroll, but also provide summer jobs for local students through the JobLink youth program. Unique Food Management Owner Rosa Randolph said the kids are learning important job skills, like the importance of being on time, dressing appropriately, and giving notice before absences.
“We give them some skills they can use wherever they go to work,” Rosa said. “It’s more than just a summer job.”
The positive impact of Meet Up and Eat Up on local business has had a ripple effect.
Johnny has partnered with farmers in the Southeast Michigan Producers Association to grow fruits and vegetables, like grape tomatoes, tricolor peppers, green beans and watermelon, for CanStrong’s summer meals.
Edibles Rex Owner Tammy Tedesco said her company, which on peak days serves about 8,000 Meet Up and Eat Up meals, receives fresh bread daily from a local vendor. The company also purchases about 90 percent of its produce — like apples, oranges and Persian cucumbers — from a vendor at Eastern Market.
“We believe if we take care of our community, it will take care of our business as well,” Tammy said.
Her team at Edibles Rex was excited to be a part of Meet Up and Eat Up, and this enthusiasm soon got her thinking of ways to make sure kids were not only coming, but were coming back to their neighborhood sites. With help from her young son, Tammy came up with the idea of creating collectable cards to go in every summer meal Edibles Rex serves. These cards feature facts and riddles about food and fitness, which not only educate children on healthy living but also give them something to talk about with their neighbors over lunch.
This year, Edibles Rex also introduced colorful, fun packaging for their meals in hopes of decreasing the stigma sometimes associated with a “school” lunch in a brown bag or on a foam tray.
It’s because their businesses are located in the same neighborhoods as many of the kids they serve that Meet Up and Eat Up’s vendors have such a passion for making the program the best it can be, said Mary Russ, office manager at Unique Food Management.
“When you have people who are doing this job where they live, it really means something to them,” she said. “I just think you are going to get a better quality product.”
Although Unique Food Management has been serving meals in Pontiac for nearly 20 years, it’s not a big company — it employs about 45 people. Rosa and Mary are grateful to United Way for its commitment to partnering with local businesses on programs like Meet Up and Eat Up. Without this opportunity, Mary said, a lot of people — and businesses — in Greater Detroit would be seriously impacted.
“If we didn’t have the support, the little guys just wouldn’t survive.”