By Shirley

It might surprise you to know that some people in the US are going hungry and are unsure when or how they will get their next meal.

According to statistics by Feeding America, 35 million people in the US struggled with hunger in 2019, before the pandemic hit. Of course, since then, conditions in this country have gotten even worse. The pandemic has greatly affected the economy, with many businesses closing down and laying off their employees. Several families have had to sacrifice one of their jobs so that one parent can stay at home with their kids while they participate in virtual classes. Even before the pandemic, many families relied on schools to feed their children during the day. It is no wonder, then, that many more families have had to seek help at food pantries, food banks or other hunger relief organizations. As a matter of fact, Food Gatherers, a food bank and food rescue program in Washtenaw County, estimated that the increase in people seeking assistance has been, at times, 300% greater than before the pandemic started. Around 40% of those people seeking relief are first time visitors to the pantry.

Janine and Sam

Janine, one of our members, and her son Sam, a nutritionist and researcher at the U of M, used to help at a local food pantry, The Back Door Food Pantry, in Ann Arbor. The food pantry worked like a grocery store, in the sense that people could peruse the store and choose what best fitted their needs (they didn’t have to pay for the food). Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, The Back Door Food Pantry had to close their doors, leaving fewer options for those in need.*

Janine and Sam were very distressed that all those people they were used to helping wouldn’t find relief during this very difficult time. Among those they felt most anxious about, were the children that depended on school lunches but were now shut in at home.

They put their heads together to come up with a solution, and, by summer, had started “Lunches 4 Learners”.

Janine and Sam wanted to provide healthy lunches to school kids, so they came up with the idea of decorated bags filled with healthy goodies. Each bag has 6 to 7 items which includes : a main course that includes a carbohydrate (a cup of rice, mac and cheese, soup or tuna salad and crackers), and a protein (beef jerky or a non-perishable sausage, for example); a snack (nuts, chips or a granola bar); fruit (usually dried fruit like raisins or a dried fruit mix); a beverage (fruit juice or milk in containers that don’t require refrigeration); and a dessert (pudding cups, gummy bears or even a little chocolate if the weather is not too hot to melt the bars).

The decorated bag idea was to make the bags more inviting to children and offer them a little ‘sunshine’ – a little love and happiness while they have their meal. But it is also a great opportunity for the children of families offering support, to learn about helping others. And it is not just kids who decorate the bags. Adults too have stepped up to volunteer their time, resources and artistic skills to make Lunches 4 Learners thrive. Starting with friends and family, the number of volunteers has grown to include ladies from a IN Tea group and, through Virginia (from the Reading group), the members of the University of Michigan Faculty Women’s Club Artist Group, which decorated 80 beautifully artistic bags.

Filled decorated bags are ready to be distributed

All the decorated bags are filled and then taken to Food Gatherers who distribute them through food pick-up centers, churches and senior centers. Because the bags are distributed by Food Gatherers, the food in the bags have to follow their requirements and restrictions. All of the food must be non-perishable, packaged in individual packs, with clear labels that account for all the ingredients in the food, in case of allergies. This means that only factory packaged food is accepted.

That restricts how healthy the food in the bags can be (no fresh fruit, for example) and here is where Sam’s knowledge comes in handy. Being a nutritionist, Sam can balance the contents of the bags to make sure the meal is healthy and delicious.

To date, Lunches 4 Learners have donated almost 800 bags of food to children in Washtenaw County.

Janine and Sam welcome anybody who would like to help, and you can assist them in many different ways:

  • You and your family can help by decorating bags (bags have to be of uniform shape and size to fit the food being donated, so please email Janine at the address below and she will bring you the bags to be decorated).
  • You can donate money.
  • You can donate food (please contact Janine to make sure the food you want to donate will be a good fit for their meals).
  • You can help them transport the bags to Food Gatherers.
  • When the weather warms up, and they can assemble the bags outdoors, they will appreciate help filling the bags.

Robyn, Tea Groups coordinator, volunteered last year

For questions, comments, requests for bags to be decorated or to ask to be added to a list to receive their newsletter, you can email Janine at:

*The Back Door Food Pantry is now working as a pick-up center where, once a week, people in need can drive up and receive a pre-assembled food bag with basic ingredients. The food ‘store’ remains closed for the moment.