By Rosemary K. Otzman
Dave Dewey of the Gleaners Mobile Pantry said a truck is scheduled to deliver food to the 150 approved families in need in Belleville on May 15.
“Nothing is set after that,” said Dewey, who said he oversees 60 food deliveries a month at different locations in Southeast Michigan and if the Van Buren Schools drops out of his schedule, he’ll replace them with someone else.
Dewey said they had the May 15 date already set but had no one to facilitate it because the volunteer leaders had indicated they could no longer work on the food drop-off.
Concerned families called the school superintendent to voice their concerns and anger.
Dewey said Angela Stroud called him from the Van Buren Public Schools and after they talked, she said the schools would facilitate the May food drop-off. Stroud is the executive assistant to School Supt. Michael Van Tassel and has been given the May food distribution assignment.
Stroud visited the former offices of Cathy Bandy and Kim Nofz and picked up paperwork on the Gleaners project so the May distribution could be set up.
It was Nofz who emailed Gleaners that she and Bandy would no longer be able to facilitate the Gleaners food distribution, so the project was over.
Two years ago, Bandy came before the school board with the announcement that Gleaners had a grant to bring food to schools that had families that qualified for free and reduced-cost lunches. South Middle School (now named Owen Intermediate) qualified and so they could start signing up families if the school district would let them unload the delivery truck on property at 416 Sumpter Road, next to the school district warehouse.
School Supt. Tom Riutta signed the agreement with Gleaners.
They started out with bringing about 40 pounds of fresh and non-perishable food items to 150 families and then Gleaners was able to provide for 200 families, Dewey said. Last fall, Gleaners was only able to provide for 150 families and the list was cut back to that number.
Bandy and Nofz first started work for the school district in 2005, when school districts in the state were required to have more parent involvement. They put on the Parent Involvement Expos and offered a variety of others services. They did their work as volunteers for about three and a half years.
They were first paid under School Supt. Pete Lazaroff at $15,000 each, although the board members later said they thought the two women were to share the $15,000. Then, Riutta paid them $12,500 each, with $500 of that for a budget.
Last June, new School Supt. Van Tassel told them they were not going to be paid any longer.
Supt. Van Tassel told the Independent that the mission of the school is education and while he applauds the efforts to offer social services, the school budget is down and he can’t balance those services against the mission of the school.
Supt. Van Tassel said the agreement was between Gleaners and the school district.
He said he would like to see the food distribution continue and it wouldn’t be hard to get people to volunteer to help, but he can’t see paying for utilities and other costs of the mobile units for offices.
He said churches in the community are doing a great job with food distribution to the hungry. And, maybe, some community group or church would take on the Gleaners’ distribution.
After the district stopped paying them last July, the women said they worked without pay for nine months because of the need in the Belleville area, with the deliveries set month by month because they were unsure if they could keep on going.
In March, Van Tassel reportedly told them they had six months to get other funding for their projects.
And, after spring break this year, the district’s cell phone they shared in the office was shut off. Nofz said they never took the phone home, but used it when working away from the office and for talking to their children.
They said it was difficult to reach the families to alert them to the food distribution and only 85 showed up for the April delivery. That’s when they decided to pack it in.
Also, the paperwork for income verification was increased through Gleaners. And, for families living in inoperable cars and other locations, the women delivered food to them. Although they submitted requests for mileage reimbursement, that no longer was given.
Last year the women went to the Van Buren Civic Fund to ask for money to renovate the trailers owned by the school district on Sumpter Road to house The Community Resources Center (a social services program), a thrift store, a clothes closet to give out free clothes, and an office for Bandy and Nofz. In the past, the units had been used for alternative education classrooms for students who couldn’t make it at the high school.
Nofz said the Civic Fund questioned the expenditure on the portables since they said the school district owned the property and should pay for its own upgrades. But, the Civic Fund granted $11,500 for the upgrades.
Now, a year later, Nofz said she feels so bad that the mobile units aren’t being used as they presented to the Civic Fund that she’d like to give the money back to them.
The school employees had been told not to touch the food, but Ron Small at the warehouse was allowed to put it on pallets when the truck arrived each month. The women and their volunteers put the food up on tables and distributed to the families.
Nofz said the school board members tell them they are in favor of their work, but the two women agree they can’t continue to do this for free. Nofz is a registered nurse and Bandy is an interior decorator.
They said they plan to get “real” jobs.
The two also did the winter coat and backpack distributions for the school district.
Dewey said as an additional resource, families in need can go to pantrynet.org and put in their zip codes and the distance they can drive to other locations for food distribution. Those centers wishing to be on the list are shown and some Belleville sites are not on the list.
Bandy said the Washtenaw County Clothes Closet supplies free clothing to those in need in sizes from infant to adults in the mobile units at 416 Sumpter Road, with special needs adults running the closet.
By Rosemary K. Otzman