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Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves, who labor quickly and quietly week after week so that kids remain fed during a pandemic that continues to create chaos.

To know that even one kid in our midst goes to sleep hungry is unconscionable. And that’s what drives them, these unsung heroes who prepare meals daily – in some cases thousands of them – for students enrolled in schools across Kent ISD.

“When I came to Kenowa Hills five years ago, my first task was to plan a Maranda Park Party at Berlin Raceway,” recalls a then-overwhelmed Peg Panici, who directs food service for Kenowa Schools. “I had no idea that my last three months I’d be doing a Maranda Park Party every day!”

Panici is retiring June 30, which will be a bittersweet way to go out since she hasn’t been able to commune up-close with many kids or staff members since schools throughout Michigan were vacated by students complying with the governor’s order that took effect this past mid-March.

“Still,” she says, “I know we’re serving a purpose. And seeing the smiles on their faces when they come to pick up their lunches makes us realize we’re doing the right thing.”

Panici and her team of fellow employees and volunteers recently surpassed the 150,000 mark – meals which are prepared and then delivered along existing school bus routes.

Note from the writer
Many of us take access to food for granted. That all changed for me some years ago when I penned a column for The Grand Rapids Press, describing what it was like to go without anything to eat for three consecutive days and nights, relying on liquids only.

Not only was it difficult, but I felt saddened and depressed – not only because I wasn’t eating, but because I finally had a visceral connection (albeit temporary) to people who didn’t do this as an experiment, but instead dealt with hunger as a matter of course. Some years later, while in Zambia on a freelance assignment, I saw the effects of hunger in even greater proportion. For too many people worldwide, every day is a challenge to find and consume healthy food.

So it gladdened me to talk to people with generous hearts for the following School News Network column, because it shines the spotlight on some pretty special people doing good works because it’s the right thing to do. And while this column features just a few of these people, please know there is an army of staff and volunteers with them providing food. If you happen to know one of them, please let them know we’re grateful.

‘School bus delivers so much more than meals…’

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools are on a similar pace, where their director of dining services, Monica Collier, relies on a staff of 17 to turn out food that is available three days weekly at a trio of sites – the high school, elementary school and early childhood center.

From left, sisters Page Yancy, Kenowa Hills High School sophomore, and Sonnet, a 2020 graduate, practice teamwork while counting the milk cartons

A former bar manager at an area restaurant and assistant food service director for another area district, Collier says that “My staff feels so rewarded by doing this,” adding that “I’m so proud to be part of the Godfrey-Lee system, where we’ve been backed up all the way by our administration. And it’s just great to be able to serve our community in such a vital way.”

What struck me in speaking with every food service employee contacted for this column were two things: One, their level of dedication to kids and their families. And two, how they adapted so quickly in the wake of the pandemic to create hybrid systems that provided a seamless transition into making meals available.

“We were serving meals the first Monday after the stay-at-home order went into effect that Friday,” says Jennifer Laninga, supervisor of nutrition services for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “In the beginning, it was overwhelming, working in a completely unknown territory, including having to determine and work out of emergency feeding sites.

“Luckily, we began with a couple of apartment complexes until we could get established in the larger schools. Now, we’re serving meals at four sites: Sibley Elementary, City Middle High, San Juan Diego Academy and Ottawa Hills High School.”

“Last week, we served more than 12,000 meals,” GRPS Food Service Director Phillip Greene noted on a day in early June. “On one recent Monday, during the course of three hours, we did 6,500 meals.”

 “Our people – and that includes volunteers – have been amazing,” says Laninga. “There were a few wrinkles in the beginning, but we all work together, and it’s been a great experience.”

Deanna Mockerman picks up a weekend treat Bag and lunches, donated by Kids Food Basket, for the next car that pulls up

At Kentwood Public Schools, Chef Mo Shamali serves as child nutrition director, in place there nearly three decades. When he got word the schools would shut down that Friday in March, his first reaction was “We need to continue feeding the kids, no matter what,” and remembered thinking “We will do it, and if anything needs to be fixed, we will fix it.

“One thousand kids or ten thousand, we will be ready.”

Like most other districts, students pick up what amounts to seven meals weekly by visiting sites two or three days a week, scoring weekend meals on Thursday or Friday, depending on the district’s schedule. Those picking up lunches line up in cars, and in virtually every case, simply convey to a worker how many lunches they need, and they’re loaded into the vehicle with  minimum human contact.

No questions asked.

“We are concerned with humanity,” says Chef Mo. “And we’re not here to ask who, but to provide a service.”

For Panici, retiring means spending more evenings enjoying the sunsets on Spring Lake. She says there will be more than a few moments spent in retrospect. “It’s been so rewarding,” she says. “And I think we’ve done some good.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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