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Traverse City free meal program to reach 50,000 donations by August

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Michael Livingston
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The Project Feed the Kids cooler awaits being stocked outside J&S Hamburg on S Airport Street in Traverse City

Born out of a pandemic, a crippled restaurant industry, and dozens of struggling families, Project Feed the Kids was meant to put some light back in the world.

Over a year later and nearly 50,000 meals distributed, Jason and Tiffany McQueer of J&S Hamburg South Airport said it’s only the beginning.

Launched in April 2020, the program was originally meant to give back to families struggling with having their children home from school. When restrictions closed the restaurant, the McQueers said they needed something to stay busy.

“We noticed that the buses were dropping off food to the local kids during the pandemic but who's feeding these kids on the weekend?” Tiffany said. “So we decided to develop Project Feed the Kids to be able to get back to the community. And we had no idea what it would turn to.”

Every weekend the J&S staff stock their wide cooler with bagged lunches for families in need. They usually include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, applesauce or yogurt, milk or juice and a snack, like chips or pretzels.

What started as a few dozen meals, quickly turned into a few hundred per weekend. The operation grew beyond just a few helpers. The McQueers said their six children even got involved. Jason says it all happened faster than he could have imagined.

“It's not just for kids anymore,” Jason said. “We service a lot of the homeless community, veterans, seniors. I mean, anybody who wants a meal, it's there.”

For many months Project Feed the Kids operated on numerous private donations from other community members.

Apache Trout Grill, Great Lakes Potato Chip Co., and the Grawn based GoGo Squeez are a few businesses the McQueers said made food donations. The program also saw financial support via a Facebook fundraiser that raised about $8,000.

Tiffany said when the program first started it was 100 percent donations-based.

“Our community is pretty amazing,” Tiffany said. “Donations that come in from the community have been outstanding. There are a lot of people that just come to donate, they haven't eaten in the restaurant before, they have no idea who we are - but they heard about the program.”

However, as life returns to normal, the McQueers said they’ve noticed a dip in donations. Not to mention, any financial donation is recognized as taxable income for J&S. Despite these shortcomings, Jason and Tiffany said they can’t stop now.

In March, the McQueers began the process to turn ”Project Feed the Kids” into a federally recognized nonprofit. Jason said this could open up doors to more donations, federal grant money and opportunities to expand to the rest of the Grand Traverse region.

The need is definitely there,” he said. “We hope to expand to more meals once the 501(c)(3) comes into place.”

“We could have a food pantry, where people could just come in at any time and get food seven days a week, versus the three to four that we do now, that would be a blessing for everyone involved.”

The McQueers hope to have the nonprofit in its infant stages by the end of the year. But for now, they’re celebrating an important milestone. Throughout the past year, Tiffany said she’s learned a life-long lesson about food insecurity in her community.

“Our original goal was 5000, and now we'll hit 50,000 meals, it's unreal,” Tiffany said. “Just to help as many people as we can, that’s the new number, that’s the goal.”

The large cooler in front of J&S Hamburg South Airport is stocked every Thursday through Sunday with fresh meals.