Providing Meals (and Hope) in the Face of Crisis
Project Feed the Kids has served over 200,000 free meals to NoMi children in the last three years
By Deb Dent | March 25, 2023
Tiffany McQueer and her husband, Jason, the owners of J&S Hamburg South in Traverse City, both grew up in poverty.
“I can remember my widowed mother going to food pantries and eating day-old food we would get in huge, black garbage bags,” Tiffany says. “We grew up knowing what it was like to go without.”
But, she adds, despite the difficult situation at home, her mother always found a way to go outside of herself and help the community around her. Even as a child, Tiffany found this very inspiring. “We had a huge garden, [and] she would give out veggies to people in need. We grew up watching her help others even though we didn’t have much.”
The McQueers bought J&S Hamburg South in 2014, building the restaurant up over the next six years. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, they shut down the restaurant and could only offer take-out. Their sales dropped by 80 percent, and they were worried about the business surviving. Tiffany says they needed something else to focus on, something that would help them get through to the other side.
It was at that point that she and Jason started to notice school buses bringing food directly to the doorsteps of local students during the week. “We wondered who was feeding on the weekend, so we wanted to.”
That’s when the idea of Project Feed the Kids was born. The program, which packages free and healthy meals for school-aged children and families, served as a beautiful way for them to honor the memory of their parents while bringing some much-needed hope to their community.
On April 1, 2020, Project Feed the Kids was officially launched. With the help of their children and staff, the McQueers packed up 81 meals that first weekend. They would stand outside of the restaurant and hand them out to families who needed lunches for their children. Within an hour, all the meals were completely gone.
“We had so many messages and calls asking if we had more meals. The very next week, we packed 500 meals,” Tiffany says.
At that time, she didn’t realize how much need there was in the community, or how much the program would grow in just a short amount of time. The McQueers eventually added a cooler outside their restaurant for the meals so people could just come and grab them when it was convenient.
With a heart to help, their youngest child, London, wanted to “feed her friends” in their hometown of Kingsley too. The family started to pack even more lunches and designated a pick-up time at Kingsley Elementary. Soon, they had a second cooler location outside of The Rock of Kingsley Youth Center.
Diane Walton, the founder and executive director of the center, says that when the cooler gets stocked, there is a considerable increase in traffic with people of all ages stopping by to pick up a free lunch. “The Rock is known for being supportive and working with others, so providing a place for the cooler and the power to keep it operating is something we can do for Project Feed the Kids and our community,” Walton says.
The McQueers were also starting to see an influx of families in need of meals making the trip into Traverse City from Kalkaska, so they decided to add a third cooler downtown in the Railroad Depot near the National Trout Memorial.
Both the Kingsley and Kalkaska coolers are within walking distance of schools, so the students can walk over and grab their meals themselves. The coolers are open 24/7, and during school breaks and summertime, the McQueers are always sure to pack extra meals to keep children fed and help as many families as they possibly can.
A local mom who has benefited from the free food program, who wished to stay anonymous, shared the following with Project Feed the Kids: “When I was trying to leave a rough relationship and had no money, waiting on a EBT card, your cooler was what fed my son on many occasions and allowed me to save money to leave this toxic environment and get into my own place with my little boy. I cannot even begin to thank you for this.”
Future Opportunities (and Challenges)
Approximately one year after they packed their first meal, Project Feed the Kids was officially made into a nonprofit. Now, as they reach their third anniversary, they serve approximately 2,000 children a week with the help of partners like GoGo Squeez, Costco, and Maxbauer Meat Market. The McQueers and their volunteers have prepared more than 200,000 meals since the start of the program.
“We started with one single-door cooler; now we have three big coolers, working on our fourth and fifth cooler in Benzie and Buckley. And with a brand-new distribution center [and] storefront this year, we are growing very quickly,” Tiffany says.
The lunch bags consist of four items: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a juice drink, a bag of pretzels or chips, and a GoGo Squeez applesauce or a piece of fruit. The food, along with the bags the meals get packed in, equates to about 10,000 items per week to make the service a reality.
Tiffany shares that each meal costs about $2.50 to produce, but with the rising cost of food lately, she notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand, especially as more families need help from Project Feed the Kids. To help offset the costs, the McQueers host a variety of events throughout the year to raise money for the program, including an adult prom, a spring carnival, and a pig roast in the fall.
Project Feed the Kids is also dependent on volunteers to help them pack the lunches up each week. Nancy Walton, along with her husband Kent, are two such volunteers. They were so impressed with the mission of the program that they offered to participate in the weekly Thursday morning gatherings and help prepare the bagged meals.
“It’s an amazing ministry of love,” Nancy says. “Without Tiffany and Jason’s vision, these children [and] families would be hard pressed to support their grocery and nutritional needs. What a gift they are to our community.”
Learn more at facebook.com/projectfeedthekids2021.