Story by Staff Sgt. Tegan Kucera
Michigan National Guard
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. – During normal times one in every six people struggle with hunger in southwest Michigan, but these are not normal times and that struggle has only grown larger.
For 38 years the South Michigan Food Bank in Battle Creek has been feeding people in eight counties in the southwest part of Michigan, and this continues during COVID-19 with the help of the Michigan National Guard.
“Early on, we realized our community needs us now more than ever,” said Summer Sunnock, the advancement director for the South Michigan Food Bank. “We recognized that people are going to still need to be fed and we needed to keep them safe, so to continue feeding and keeping people safe, we moved our distribution model to a drive-thru. Our volunteers and the National Guard have been packaging and pre-packaging boxes and bags to hand out to our clients.”
The South Michigan Food Bank distributes food to 285 pantries in their area, helping to feed over 100,000 people throughout the year. Since March, the amount of food they distribute has only increased with more families in need due to COVID-19 hardships.
Before COVID-19, food bank clients could come in and get their food. This is no longer safe, so the food bank switched to a drive-thru method. Sunnock said, some of the changes they have implemented would have eventually taken place, but they had to put them into effect within three months.
“I feel honored to be a part of South Food Bank in this time, where people need food now more than ever,” said Sunnock.
In April, the Michigan National Guard was appointed to help seven of the area food banks throughout the state. In late July the Soldiers and Airmen who were on that mission were then tasked with other missions. Due to the increased need, the food bank missions were extended late last month with new teams assigned.
“I never realized how much the National Guard did until now, and we’ve been able to have a good relationship with them,” said Sunnock. “Having that awareness of how they are constantly doing something to better communities, helping people who are in need.”
The South Michigan Food Bank runs every Tuesday, and in March had about 200 families coming in. Now it is over 400 consistent clients. Due to continuous safety concerns, most of their volunteers need to stay home, and this left the food bank with more work and less help.
“I’m a very community-oriented person, so it’s been an honor to me to be able to help out here,” said Master Sgt. Carmen LaGuardia of the 110th Wing at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, the non-commissioned officer-in-charge airmen at the South Michigan Food Bank.
Helping with the food bank is nothing new to LaGuardia: at home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she puts in about 150 hours a month into her local food pantry helping out. Now she has been tasked with helping on the southwest side of the state.
“It means everything to me, giving everything I can give and helping out and being a part of something,” said LaGuardia.
Like many, she is happy to do her part during this pandemic. She is one of seven Airmen who has been tasked last month to come and help fill in the gaps that were still need at the South Michigan Food Bank.
“Whatever they need me to do I’ll do it,” said Staff Sgt. Mitch Kalinowski. “It’s good to give back in whatever ways we can, especially with the coronavirus going on, the need is higher now than it has ever been.”
Kalinowski is the non-commissioned officer in charge of the cleanroom, he was one of the original Airmen who was at the food bank in April. He has seen the increased need that has been placed on the food banks, and he is motivated to be back.
In one day they packaged 2,504 bags of granola, with each bag weighing two pounds this means they took care of 5,000 pounds of granola.
“We’ve been setting those goals and beating them, it’s almost been easy for us because we’re so motivated right now,” said Kalinowski.