Kids’ Food Basket celebrates milestone anniversary

Childhood hunger nonprofit strives to be ‘better than the day before.’
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In fiscal year 2021, Kids’ Food Basket served more than 1.3 million healthy meals through its Sack Supper program, which provides individuals up to five days’ worth of food in a decorated brown paper bag. Courtesy Hannah Grant, Kids’ Food Basket

A lot has happened at Kids’ Food Basket during the past 20 years.

Throughout 2022, Kids’ Food Basket (KFB) is celebrating the organization’s collective impact of providing nutritious meals to local families with the help of countless West Michigan organizations and the general public.

The Grand Rapids organization began in 2002 when its founder Mary K. Hoodhood received a phone call from a local principal who said students were going into the cafeteria after school searching for food to take home. With $3,000, a few volunteers and a mission to feed hungry kids, KFB started with feeding 125 students at two Kent County schools.

Bridget Clark Whitney. Courtesy Kids’ Food Basket

Today, under the leadership of President and CEO Bridget Clark Whitney, the organization provides approximately 9,300 meals every day to kids and families in Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa and Allegan counties.

“The whole year of our 20th is really our anniversary date,” Clark Whitney said. “We didn’t become a 501(c)3 until August of 2002, but the program started a few months before then. So, we’re really just using the whole year to celebrate, which is a cool opportunity as well to engage our West Michigan community — because it’s only been because of the generosity and the real community spirit of (West Michigan) that we’ve been able to grow.”

The 20-year celebration will be incorporated into familiar KFB events such as its Brown Bag Decorating Day and Feast for Kids, while also featuring a series of new events that will be held at varying locations, from the 10-acre sustainable farm at its Grand Rapids headquarters to areas on the lakeshore. Event schedules and information will be released throughout the year on the organization’s website and social media platforms.

“So many people in West Michigan have touched the Kids’ Food Basket mission, whether it’s been through giving of their time by volunteering or decorating sack supper bags or donating funds or really just engaging in the mission of nourishing our children,” Clark Whitney said. “So much of West Michigan has engaged, so we really want to include as many people as possible in these events because it’s really been that West Michigan spirit, which is the catalyst for our growth.”

In fiscal year 2021, the organization served more than 1.3 million healthy meals to West Michigan families through its flagship Sack Supper model, providing up to five days’ worth of food in a decorated brown paper bag, along with other “nourish” food provisioning programs, including Family Food Boxes with ready-to-eat meals for entire families, and Homeless Response meals donated to local shelters such as Mel Trotter Ministries and Family Promise of Grand Rapids.

The organization also launched its Ground Up Learning Lab last year to enhance its “learn” core value, which aims to promote a deeper understanding of racial, economic and systemic barriers to food equity. The learning lab provides a series of interactive lessons for students, teaching them home gardening skills and encouraging community engagement, sustainability and healthy lifestyle habits. In its first year, the program saw more than 3,600 students and already has received national recognition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an exemplary curriculum for getting kids engaged in healthy food and growing their own food, Clark Whitney said. 

Clark Whitney said the organization doesn’t have a meal goal number for 2022, only because one of KFB’s core values is accountability. Growth in the new year will be focused on enhancing programming based on community needs and surrounding its five strategic focus areas, which include nourish and learn programming, as well as its other pillars of grow, engage and advocate.

“What the community needs from us is how we respond, and that fluctuates. Oftentimes, it fluctuates being based on something like a pandemic, or it fluctuates based on policy at a national level,” Clark Whitney said. “So, 1.3 million meals … we were very grateful to be able to do that. It’s obviously unfortunate that that need is out there, but we were grateful to be able to serve so many healthy meals, and every single one of those 1.3 million meals was full of healthy, nourishing food for our kids and community members, for our families as well; that also includes family food boxes. So, our goals are around amplifying these five programs: nourish, grow, learn, engage and advocate.”

The organization also plans to continue to expand its presence in the counties it serves, with a particular emphasis on Muskegon County. Clark Whitney said in Muskegon alone,  11 schools are on KFB’s waitlist, and Muskegon Heights has become a “food desert,” with minimal access to fresh food. Currently, KFB’s Muskegon operations are conducted out of a church basement, which has been instrumental in addressing the needs in Muskegon up to this point, but Clark Whitney said a focus on lakeshore operations and program growth will be a key factor in addressing such major food disparities.

Due to the ever-increasing need, the organization has an ongoing call for volunteers, which Clark Whitney said are needed at all KFB locations. Volunteer opportunities are available at least six and sometimes seven days a week, and those looking to give back are encouraged to contribute their “time, talent, radical love and energy” toward providing healthy food for neighboring children and families in need.

Clark Whitney said the organization is confident it will continue its trajectory of year-over-year growth that has marked the past 20 years. To ensure it stays on the path of remaining accountable to the community, KFB plans to continue hosting listening sessions to understand the needs, then will design its programming and work around how it can best serve and nourish those in need.

“Another big part of who we are and our big accomplishments over the 20 years is our value of being better than the day before. So, we are really, as an organization, committed to that every single day — being better than the day before,” she said.

Clark Whitney said she and her team are truly proud of KFB’s value of being better than the day before.

“We’ve really held to that from our humble $3,000 beginnings, and we have consistently gotten better both for the community that we serve and for the communities that need us, who we have yet to serve. And for (West Michigan), we’re committed always to being better than the day before, we’re committed to being accountable to community, and we are committed to honoring every single resource that comes in these doors.”

More information regarding volunteer opportunities and the 20th anniversary celebration of Kids’ Food Basket is available at kidsfoodbasket.org.

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