Detroit's Food Economy

Feeding Kids During the Long Days of Summer

by: Laura Weber-Davis

February 24, 2013


Map of summer food sites that were available to children in the city of Detroit. Courtesy of United Way for Southeast Michigan

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“Hunger is real. We need to work on that and find ways that we can attack – and not just at the kid level, but at the household level.” -- Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Office of Food Services, Detroit Public Schools


Participation rates in the summer food program in Detroit have been low over the years. The United Way of Southeast Michigan says only about a quarter of kids who eat lunch at Detroit Public Schools during the school year participate in the summer food program. The participation rate among kids who aren’t also in summer school is even smaller. Part of the reason for the low turnout has to do with the program’s reputation. DPS and Gleaners Community Food Bank are trying to improve that reputation through tastier meals and activities to engage kids.

There are about 200 sites in Detroit that serve federally funded meals to kids during the summer. With a few exceptions those sites are overseen either by Gleaners Community Food Bank or Detroit Public Schools.

WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis continues our series on Detroit’s food economy with this look at the city’s summer food program.

Guests:
Bobbi Posey Milner, Principal, Gompers Elementary Middle School
Sara Gold, “No Kid Hungry” Program Director, United Way for Southeast Michigan
Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Office of Food Services, Detroit Public Schools
Vicky Carter, mother of three, Brightmoor resident
Dewayne Wells, President, Gleaners Community Food Bank

This series is made possible by the generous support of our Sustaining Members. Because of you, WDET can bring this critical story to everyone in our region.

Transcript

Many of the kids who participate in the summer food program are in summer school though DPS summer food sites are open to all kids who qualify for free and reduced-price meals in school.

Bobbi Posey Milner is the principal of Gompers Elementary Middle School. She says she was thrilled when DPS officials asked her school to become a summer food site.

“We were like ‘Yes.’ And I was like ‘Yes.’”

Posey says she will take any opportunity to open the school up to the community and help parents and students.

“They didn’t have to worry about it. There was a safe place where they would be getting some good food, and they would come.”

But participation rates in the summer food program have been low over the years. The United Way of Southeast Michigan says only about a quarter of kids who eat lunch at DPS during the school year participate in the summer food program. The participation rate among kids who aren’t also in summer school is even smaller. Part of the reason for the low turnout has to do with the program’s reputation.

Sara Gold is the “No Kid Hungry” director at the United Way of Southeast Michigan.

“A couple things have happened historically that have added up to it basically not having a great reputation…”

Such as…

“The way that it’s managed, the places where folks can access the program, the type of food that was being served. Those types of things.”

The city government used to oversee many summer food sites throughout Detroit. Because of ongoing financial issues, the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion’s management of the program ended last year. Management of most of those sites was picked up by Gleaners and DPS. Gold says the hard part has been getting the word out to parents that things have changed.

“There’s sort of a new person in charge of this program. The program is the same, there still a meal available for your kid, but we’ve changed the way the management is going in the city. In terms of changing the more cultural attitudes about it? It’s really about presenting the food.”

In other words, how do you convince parents and kids the summer food sites are worth their while, and the food is no longer, well gross?

“Summer Food was gross. And some people went.”

That’s Betti Wiggins, executive director of the DPS Office of Food Services. DPS and Gleaners officials take pride that their summer programs on serve fresh, tasty, healthy foods. Wiggins sits in a commercial-grade kitchen at one of her schools… hood vents whir over large steamers and stovetops. She says the schools still play an important role for kids and parents in the summer.

“So when summer comes now your budget doesn’t expand. You don’t get any additional money to feed kids, so you find out kids eat poorer and have a less nutritious diet.”

Wiggins says one of the biggest issues the summer food program faces is the lack of food access for parents. The federal government only reimburses meals served to kids… not adults.

“Hunger is real. So we need to work on that and find ways that we can attack – and not just at the kid level, but at the household level.”

“I even went there one day just to watch, sit in. And they said ‘Oh no, you can’t eat, because this is strictly for children.’”

Vicky Carter is a mother of three. She lives in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, and sends her kids to a summer food site at a neighborhood church. Carter says she thinks the program would be more successful if parents were able to eat with their kids.

“I think so. I really do think so. I mean, everybody wants to eat, everyone’s hungry. And I think that would be a good opportunity to even build a relationship with your child and sit down and eat with them. I think that’s a great thing.”

Some summer food sites have found ways to feed people of all ages but with limited resources, most must focus strictly on kids. Dewayne Wells is president of Gleaners. He says ramping up the availability of daytime activities at the sites is a major goal. Activities are generally provided on a voluntary basis.

“It’s better if there’s more than a meal being offered. So some sites will open up and just serve the meal between 11 and 1. But if they have somewhere there’s academic programming or sports or other sorts of recreational programming…”

Then, he says, more kids will be fed well during the long days of summer.

I’m Laura Weber-Davis. WDET News.