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Nutritional values: Rachelle Bonelli and the Gleaners mission

When people think of Gleaners, programs like Kids Helping Kids, Cooking Matters, and No Kid Hungry probably don't come to mind. They will now, says Noelle Lothamer. 
Known primarily for the food bank services they provide to local families in need, Gleaners has been a prominent fixture of Detroit’s nonprofit community since 1977. However, what began as a humble food distribution system has become so much more; nowadays, the food bank is only one component of Gleaners' mission. Programs such as Kids Helping Kids, Cooking Matters, and No Kid Hungry have made Gleaners one of the foremost regional organizations to provide food-related assistance to children and families, not only through offering physical food, but also by providing valuable educational tools for kids and parents alike. 

At the helm of these programs is Rachelle Bonelli, a slight, wiry woman with upswept salt-and-pepper curls, dark-rimmed glasses and a clipped, mile-a-minute New York accent that lets you know she’s all about making things happen. Her warm smile and open demeanor are befitting of someone whose mission is helping others, but her attitude is less laid-back than it is energetic and motivated. She’s all about getting things done.

It’s no surprise, then, that Bonelli originally comes from an entrepreneurial background. For 20 years, before getting into the nonprofit sector, she ran her own restaurant and catering company. Her transition began about ten years ago, when she started volunteering for a culinary training program through Operation Frontline in St. Clair County. Through her volunteer work, she met Gleaners’ Information Systems Services Manager Greg Kozlowski, then a chef/trainer. When he switched departments and his position opened up at Gleaners in 2005, Kozlowski thought of Bonelli. She jumped at the chance to make a career change, promptly selling her catering business and diving in headfirst.

When asked what inspired her to leave her successful small business for a career at a nonprofit, she shrugs. "After volunteering, I got the bug," she says modestly. Although she says she was "over the food thing" when it came to running a business, her background was a definite asset when it came to her newfound career. Bonelli says her years in restaurants, where teamwork is imperative for things to run smoothly, have helped her foster a positive team spirit among her staff members. She also emphasizes her experience with economizing and balancing a budget: "As a businessperson, you have to know where every penny is going. Likewise, we have to be good stewards of our donors’ money," she says. "I treat each program like a mini business." 

Over the years, Bonelli’s position has evolved from chef/trainer to Director of Youth & Nutrition Programs at Gleaners. Under her leadership, programs have grown and flourished, and several additional job positions have been created; she currently oversees six staff members. When she began with Gleaners in 2005, they offered 26 Cooking Matters classes a year. That number has mushroomed and is now around 130 (not counting classes sponsored by Gleaners in other parts of the state), with about 20 percent of those focusing on families and children. 

Bonelli’s eyes light up and her gestures become even more animated when talking about these programs and the positive boost of confidence they can give to participants. She describes an "Iron Chef"-style contest in one of the teen Cooking Matters classes, marveling aloud at how seriously the kids took the competition, displaying none of the stereotypical teen indifference and having a great time with the challenge. When asked if there is ever a hurdle with getting students to prepare or eat certain healthier foods kids are known to shy away from, she says, "Not at all… If they cook it themselves, they’ll eat it." Apparently, the pride of accomplishment is a seasoning that makes any food more palatable. 

Younger children gain a sense of pride in the Kids Helping Kids program as well, by packing up healthy snack packs for students who aren’t able to get enough to eat at home. "These snacks are often a major factor in getting families through weekends, when the school lunch is not available," Bonelli explains. The program is an obvious asset to the kids receiving the food, but it also has tangible benefits to the young volunteers, teaching them the value of community service, and even increasing their knowledge about what constitutes a nutritious snack. "When I started, the packs included things like chips and cookies," Bonelli says. She made changes to the program so that the items were healthier, and kids took notice: "They’ll ask why certain foods are included, and this provides a teachable moment."

The latest program Gleaners has added to their roster is No Kid Hungry, a nationwide initiative of which Michigan is the 18th state to participate. Co-sponsored by Share Our Strength and the United Way of Southeast Michigan, No Kid Hungry connects children with both hot and cold lunches during the summer months at around 125 locations throughout Detroit (dial 211 for information and locations). In the fall, the focus will shift to encouraging increased participation in free or reduced-price breakfast to students who often don’t get breakfast at home, as well as after-school meals.

The ever-growing list of programs to coordinate and staff to oversee might leave some overwhelmed, but Bonelli takes it all in stride. After the fast, stressful pace of restaurant kitchens and the demanding nature of catering gigs, she’s well equipped to handle the load, after all. More than this, though, it’s the rewarding nature of the job that fuels her. "I know it sounds cliché, but it’s been life-changing," she says of her work. With all that Bonelli has done through her own volunteerism and with Gleaners, it’s safe to say hers isn’t the only life that has changed for the better.

Noelle Lothamer authors the Model D series on Detroit food called SimmerD.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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