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Childhood hunger is an issue many associate with developing countries on other continents, but it’s prevalent right here in metro Detroit. In fact, one in four children face hunger – more than 197,000 kids right in our backyard.

Khali Sweeney sees it all the time at his Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit, a free after-school program.

“A lot of our students go home to an empty refrigerator. A lot of our kids go to school without food in their stomachs,” Sweeney said. “We had one student who trained every day but was getting weaker and weaker. I asked him, ‘When was the last time you ate?’ and he said, ‘I had a bowl of cereal.’ So, I was thinking to myself he ate a bowl of cereal that morning – but, he actually ate a bowl of cereal three days ago. Unfortunately, that is a reality for a lot of our students.”

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Derrick Coleman

NBA legend Derrick Coleman has seen the same at the youth basketball leagues he organizes. “A lot of kids are going home where there is nothing to eat. There is a problem. When your stomach is growling there is nothing else you can focus on.”

Both Sweeney and Coleman are committed to helping metro Detroit’s kids excel. To make it happen, though, they both found they needed to address the underlying issue of hunger in order to work on academics and athletics with their students. So, they turn to Forgotten Harvest. The food rescue operation works with hundreds of schools, foundations, non-profit programs and sports leagues to supply fresh and healthy food that would otherwise end up wasted in landfills.

Feeding Young Minds

At the Downtown Boxing Gym, more than 156 Detroit youth ages 8-18 receive tutoring, mentoring, enrichment programs, boxing lessons – and nourishing meals. The boxing gym has a 100 percent high school graduation rate over the last 10 years, and a waiting list of 850 students.

“For many of our kids, the food Forgotten Harvest provides to our program is their one meal of the day or their main meal of the day. They're rescuing food and literally helping fuel young minds. There's all sorts of research and studies that show if you're hungry your body goes into ‘survival mode’ and you can't think past that to focus on things like schoolwork. All your body can focus on is that you're starving,” said Sweeney. “Forgotten Harvest is helping our kids get over that hurdle so they can become mentally and educationally fit as well as physically fit.”

Elainda McClain heads up the kitchen (a $70,000 facility donated by TV cook Rachel Ray) at the gym, where a lot of hungry kids assemble after school.

“They come in sometimes starving, and some kids I have to give three plates of food to,” McClain said. “For some families, I send a plate of food home because I know there is nothing to eat there. When we have protein bars and extra fruit and vegetables, I give it to the kids to bring home, especially for the weekend.”

McClain’s 9-year-old daughter Eyainna plans to one day run a gym and academic center to give Detroit kids the same support and guidance she has received at the Downtown Boxing Gym. And her mother has become so inspired by the program that she’s gone back to school. She’ll get associate degrees in both business and human resources in August and plans to go on to Wayne State University for her bachelor’s.

As a single mother of four, McClain also relies on Forgotten Harvest to keep her family fed. “It is awesome food, just the most wonderful thing,” she said. “I thank Forgotten Harvest for everything they have done.”

Healthy Learners

It is widely recognized that good nutrition is critical to healthy growth and development. “Health and Academic Achievement,” a CDC publication, cites numerous studies showing that “improving access to healthy foods… is linked to healthier students who are also better learners.” Conversely, these studies show that “lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables or dairy products, is associated with lower grades among students.” 

According to Feeding America, “studies have found that food insecurity has been associated with health problems for children that may hinder their ability to function normally and participate fully in school and other activities.” 

Furthermore, children who “experience food insecurity may be at higher risk for behavioral issues and social difficulties” that affect school performance, including truancy, school tardiness, fighting, aggression, anxiety, mood swings and bullying, according to Feeding America.

Unfortunately, too many children in Detroit live below the poverty level, leaving them at high risk for food insecurity and chronic undernutrition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “2016 American Community Survey,” more than 85,000 Detroit children under age 18, 50.8 percent, now live below the poverty level.

Filling a Need

Coleman teamed up with Forgotten Harvest to help kids in the summer as the spokesperson for Forgotten Harvest’s Health Food: Health Kids Detroit School Pantry program. In the program, rescued food is distributed to more than 1,100 vulnerable families with young children through six Detroit schools and Head Start programs during the summer.

General Motors is also helping alleviate food insecurity by donating $90,000 to the program.

Because Forgotten Harvest can provide approximately five pounds of food for every dollar donated, this grant will provide 450,000 pounds of nutritious fresh food for local children – enough food for approximately 375,000 nutritious meals. Based on a recent study by KPMG that values a pound of donated food at $1.73, this grant will leverage more than $778,000 worth of fresh food to relieve child hunger in metro Detroit.

“Forgotten Harvest is doing vital work to feed our children and help them succeed in the classroom,” says Heidi Magyar, director of Corporate Giving, General Motors. “GM is committed to advancing education and creating sustainable communities where children and their families can thrive.”

When he was a student athlete, Derrick Coleman missed a lot of family dinners. But he knew his aunt was always keeping something warm in the oven for when he got home. Sadly, he said, that is far from the case for most of the youth in his DC Elite summer basketball leagues, which involve more than 800 kids on 45 teams.

“We have a huge hunger crisis in the summertime,” Colman said. “During the school year, at least the students get breakfast and lunch at school, but in the summer there is none of that. These kids depend on us.”

To learn more about how Forgotten Harvest helps in the fight against childhood hunger, visit forgottenharvest.org.

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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