Surrounded by tubs and shelves bursting with food, Jenny Steele ticked off the numbers of children at half a dozen schools who would soon be receiving it. Here in a portable classroom behind Meadow Ridge Elementary School, the Rockford mom was about to oversee a meal-packing operation to keep those students well-fed over the weekend.
As chief organizer of a newly expanded meal program in Rockford elementary schools, called Hand2Hand, Steele is clear about why she has put untold hours into lining up church volunteers to help students in need. “As a Christian organization, we believe God created these kids with a God-given potential we want them to fulfill,” said Steele, whose son Caleb goes to Meadow Ridge. “We know if they have hungry stomachs, it’s going to be harder for them to perform in the classroom. We want to get this food to them to help them do the best that they can.”
After starting Hand2Hand last year at Meadow Ridge, Steele coordinated an expansion of the program this fall to five other Rockford schools: Crestwood, Lakes, Parkside, Roguewood and Valley View. Each is sponsored by a local church and, with more than 100 students served, Steele expects more schools to join including River Valley Academy.
The Rockford program is part of the larger Hand2Hand initiative, which serves more than 4,000 students in 97 area schools. Those include schools in seven Kent County districts besides Rockford: Byron Center, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kenowa Hills, Kentwood, Thornapple Kellogg and Wyoming. It aims to make sure students, most of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches during the week, have enough food over the weekend.
But filling hungry tummies is about more than making sure they’re ready to study come Monday, Steele said: “We want them to understand they’re special, they’re loved, and there are people there for them.”
From One School, One Church to Many
Hand2Hand began in 2008 as an outreach of Fair Haven Church in Hudsonville. Cheri Honderd, at the time director of Fair Haven’s Kids Hope USA school mentoring program, saw firsthand how many students were at risk of hunger as the great recession hit hard.
Having known poverty as a child, she saw a gap the church could fill by filling student backpacks with bagged meals they could take home on the weekends. Volunteers bag the meals, which are placed in students’ lockers after school on Thursdays.
Starting with one school in Jenison, it has grown as a nonprofit serving some 4,300 students from early childhood through high school throughout West Michigan.
“We will go into any school where there’s a hungry child if we can find a church that will be that liaison,” said Honderd, Hand2Hand’s executive director. “Every child matters, and every child has the right to excel.”
Although the program observes church-state boundaries by not proselytizing to families, volunteers pray for the students while packing and delivering the food. “We believe that praying for them is as important as the food itself,” Honderd added.
The program came to Rockford after Jenny Steele learned of it at her church, South Harbor in Byron Center, which supplies meals for students in Byron Center Public Schools. Knowing the need at Meadow Ridge, Steele persuaded Pastor Tim Wilson to have the church also provide food for her son’s school. School parents and neighbors packed the meals in her basement.
“We will go into any school where there’s a hungry child if we can find a church that will be that liaison” — Cheri Honderd, Hand2Hand’s executive director
When Meadow Ridge Principal Blake Bowman offered an unused portable to store the food, it opened up the opportunity to serve the whole district, Steele said. As a former teacher, she knew how important that could be for students’ behavior and readiness to learn.
“When the kids have food, they’re different kids,” she said.
‘We Want to Help … and We Love You’
Bowman knows that difference all too well. He tells of a third-grader who went home on a Friday and came back Monday in a terrible mood. They didn’t know why until they found out he had only eaten one corn dog all weekend.
“These are the kids who say ‘TGIM. Thank goodness it’s Monday. I can eat again,'” Bowman says in a video produced for Hand2Hand.
Although Rockford is largely regarded as financially well-off, one in four Meadow Ridge students qualifies for free or reduced lunch, Bowman notes. Hand2Hand, he said, “sends a quiet message to these kids: ‘We know what you’re going through … and we want to help. Because you’re worth it. And we love you!”
Meadow Ridge is sponsored by River Rock Church; other schools are sponsored by Bridgeway Church, Rockford United Methodist, Bella Vista and Blythefield Christian Reformed. Each church raises funds and signs up for a month of meal-packing.
On a recent Tuesday evening, volunteers from Rockford United Methodist came to the Meadow Ridge portable to pack two weekends’ worth of meals. Most of the food was bought by Anna Leitch, a Meadow Ridge parent who shops at Feeding America and grocery stores to provide breakfast, lunch or dinner and snacks for each student.
Lauren Massa, a seventh-grader at North Rockford Middle School, filled bags along with her mother, Kelly. Hand2Hand opened her eyes to the need, Lauren said.
“I never thought about how people come to school and that’s how they get their food,” Lauren said. “When they go home on the weekends, they don’t have any food source. I’m trying to make a difference in their lives.”
Anyone interested in bringing Hand2Hand to their school may contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.