Higher Hopes provides nutrition aid to those in need

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published May 17, 2017

 The Higher Hopes program has demonstrated the generous spirit of dozens of Detroit-area residents and businesses. Pictured, several volunteers from the Order of the Fisherman Ministry and Focus: Hope pose for a photo after volunteering to package and load food parcels onto trucks so that families in need could have a proper Thanksgiving meal in 2016.

The Higher Hopes program has demonstrated the generous spirit of dozens of Detroit-area residents and businesses. Pictured, several volunteers from the Order of the Fisherman Ministry and Focus: Hope pose for a photo after volunteering to package and load food parcels onto trucks so that families in need could have a proper Thanksgiving meal in 2016.

Photo provided by Bill Birndorf

DETROIT — What began as a desire by one Commerce Township resident to help others has grown into an ongoing program to provide healthy food to those who are struggling.

That individual is Bill Birndorf, a manufacturing rep for the Apple Marketing Co., which sells consumer products to big-box retailers like Spartan, Meijer and Kmart. He was spurred to action a few years ago after a happy and fulfilling Thanksgiving, and a news story that reminded him not everyone had been so lucky.

“Four years ago, we had a really nice Thanksgiving dinner at our house with about 25 people,” explained Birndorf. “After everybody left, we were getting ready to go to sleep and we saw a story on the news about a woman who was going to get a free turkey for her family when her car broke down. It gave me an idea about distributing 1,000 turkeys in the city of Detroit for the next Thanksgiving. That grew to include everything we had had for dinner that night: potatoes, vegetables, casserole, etc. The next year, we had four semi-trucks delivering food to families in Detroit.”

Over the course of the following year, Birndorf raised $50,000 from friends, family and corporations from around the city. What he couldn’t get donated, he and those assisting him purchased from Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan and its mobile pantry program. Gleaners proved to be very favorable to the idea and agreed to warehouse the donated food and let Birndorf and company use its trucks to distribute the food to families in Detroit. 

“They have been super-great partners for a few years now,” said Rachelle Bonelli, Gleaners’ vice president of programs. “Bill came to us wanting to help with Head Start families. He was a great partner — very energetic and very easy to work with. He is really genuine. I love the fact that he is engaging the community to fundraise to provide support. He does a lot of this himself and talks to people himself. He just exudes positivity.”

Each Thanksgiving kit contained 65 pounds of food and contained everything from a turkey and sides to dessert. Birndorf and those aiding him worked through the Head Start and Great Start programs, which help families who may be struggling.

“My wife works with a Head Start ministry, and we started there,” said Birndorf. “They help families below the poverty level. We ended up helping eight Head Start groups and identifying 1,000 families who were in need that first year. We wanted to give these families the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own homes with their own families. Some of these families said they could never have Thanksgiving, because it was money they couldn’t afford to take out of their heat or electric bill.”

Birndorf continues his Thanksgiving program, but he has expanded his efforts into what he named the Higher Hopes program, which provides similar food parcels to families in the Head Start program at the start of the summer months. The parcels are aimed at not only providing food to families, but healthy food.

“We start by providing fresh produce, as well as healthy groceries like chicken, beans, canned tomatoes, canned fruits and vegetables, and rice. We provide 30 pounds of food, 17 pounds of which is produce,” said Bonelli. “Supplying families with healthy food in the summer is a great basis for our tomorrow. People can’t learn and grow if they don’t have the building blocks, and an important building block is healthy food.”

The Higher Hopes program distributed 1,700 35-pound meal kits during its first summer. This summer, its second year, it will provide 4,000 meal kits all while still giving out 1,000 Thanksgiving parcels this fall.

Birndorf shared his pride in the number of people and businesses that have supported his efforts.

“There were 35 corporate donors, four family foundations and 100 individual donors that donated an average of $200,” he said. “Coca-Cola donated 1,000 2-liter bottles of assorted Coke products; Cooper Street Cookies have, for the last two years, donated 1,000 packages of their cookies; and the Michigan Potato Industry Commission donated 1,000 10-pound bags of potatoes.

“When I asked people at Costco, a woman named Gail gave us a $100 gift card because that was all they could give, but (said to) come back the next year earlier in the year. So the next year, we came back with photos of the event to show around. They told me she had passed away the week before. I spoke to the store manager, and she said they couldn’t support the initiative, but she knew we needed canned green beans, so her team came up with more than 1,000 cans in both 2015 and 2016, and they called the collection ‘Greenbeans for Gail.’ It was all so very nice.”

Higher Hopes expanded into the summer because it is an often overlooked problem that families will face more difficult times during those months due to children being home all day and no longer being able to take advantage of meal programs provided during the school year.

“Families with school-age children are hit especially hard, who may be relying on the one or two meals they are getting at school, which they are no longer getting in the summer,” said Bonelli. “Plus, most families have more than one child, so it can all add up.”

Birndorf hopes to keep this charitable program going indefinitely. By the end of 2017, he and his fellow organizers will have provided more than 100,000 meals to those in need of food assistance.

“We run this with only a few people. A few people at my office help me, and then we get volunteers and people hearing about it and helping after they hear about it through word-of-mouth,” said Birndorf. “It kind of all came together. There was a lot of networking with people I know or companies I do business with, a lot of time on the phone. After we got talking about what we wanted to do, they were all very favorable to the idea.”