Fresh Food for People In Need: The Story of a New Partnership

By Bronwyn Jones
Sun contributor
This summer something strange and wonderful is happening at food pantries in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties. People in need of emergency food supplies are receiving nutritious, fresh foods grown on farms nearby. From lettuce and carrots to beans and potatoes, healthy food grown by dozens of area farmers is finding its way to food pantries at a time of increasing need.

So, how did this happen? What’s going on? And how can you get involved in helping the most-needy among us?
The Fresh Food Partnership was formed last February by a diverse group of nonprofit organizations concerned about the growing number of people with emergency food needs and the decreasing number of local farms. Prodded by a persistent volunteer, the United Way of Northern Michigan, Northwest Michigan Human Services Agency, Land Information Access Association and Michigan State University-Extension combined efforts to develop a fairly simple, but effective three-part program: 1. Raise money from people of means in our region; 2. Buy fresh food from area farmers at fair market value; and 3. Distribute the food to people in need through local food pantries.
This summer, the Fresh Food Partnership began working to put the program in motion. The response has been both enormously gratifying and heartbreaking.
Here’s the heartbreaking part. The U.S. Census estimated that 13,589 people in our six-county area were living at or below the poverty line in 2000. That number has increased every year since the 2000 Census. With the exception of seniors and small children, most of them were working. However, hunger reaches much farther.
The insidious problem for too many folks in our gorgeous resort area is “food insecurity”. Many families know they can’t afford to lose their home or vehicle, but they don’t have enough working hours to meet all the bills, so they skimp on food. “Food insecurity” means a household can’t provide for all its food needs, or has had significant difficulty acquiring food in socially acceptable ways. People suffering from food insecurity may also be involuntarily hungry because they can’t afford groceries.
In 2002 well over 65,000 people were forced to turn to the 26 food pantries of the Northwest Food Coalition in our six-country region (Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau and Wexford Counties). Yet those pantries represent barely half of the pantry and community meals programs active in northwest lower Michigan. Measures taken so far in 2003 show that the need is growing. All food pantries and the state food bank supplies report dwindling supplies.
What about the farmers? There are over 1,160 small farms in our six-county area. Yet, most of these farmers cannot support their families through farming alone. As a result, many farmers sell their land for development. There is an urgent need to support the folks who grow our food and who strive to preserve farming as a viable way of life. So why not raise money to pay farmers top dollar for their produce and provide folks dependent on pantries with a consistent supply of nutritious, fresh food?
So here’s the gratifying part. After a well-attended press conference early last spring, generous donations started coming in from dozens of individuals and organizations. By passing the collection plate one Sunday, a church in Traverse City raised over $500 for the effort. The Shumsky Foundation provided a $1,000 contribution. In June, an “Empty Bowls Hunger Benefit” was sponsored by the Oryana Food Co-Op and the Grand Traverse Potters and Sculptors Guild in Traverse City. Members of the Guild donated hand crafted ceramic bowls and Oryana donated soup and bread. That month, people purchased more than 200 bowls of soup for $10 each and got to keep those beautiful bowls. All of the money collected in this way was donated.
With a total of $6,000 in contributions and many pledges of volunteer help, we began buying produce from local farmers in late June, concentrating this first summer on Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties. Shopping three days a week at the Leland and Traverse City farm markets, we are providing fresh, and often organic, fruits and vegetables to food pantries in Suttons Bay, Northport and Burdickville in Leelanau County, and to three pantries, including the Goodwill Inn in Grand Traverse County.
We hear that the joy and gratitude of people visiting the pantries is tremendous. The Acme Christian Thrift Store & Pantry reports that the number of people coming for food has doubled since the regular arrival of the fresh food. In addition to being fed well, many people are experiencing the joy of truly fresh-from-the-farm food for the first time. At the Goodwill Inn some people had never taken the husk off an ear of corn before. A little boy marveled that carrots had tops and were pulled out of the ground. A woman said she was going to make a salad for the first time in a long time
In addition, generous souls have donated money to buy animals at the Northwestern Michigan Fair, supporting the 4H kids as well as the hungry. On Labor Day weekend the meat from five pigs and a steer (who have also been generous, albeit involuntary, donors) will be distributed to needy families.
It is a modest beginning, but the Fresh Food Partnership and its many donors and volunteers are making a real difference in peoples’ lives. Perhaps you can help too.
Anyone who has donated canned or packaged food to a local pantry food drive knows that good feeling you get from giving. Feeding hungry people is simply one of the most gratifying things we can do. Through the Fresh Food Partnership, we have a tangible way of helping increase local markets for farmers while putting more nutritious, fresh food into the hands of people in need.
To find out more about the Fresh Food Partnership, you can visit the web site at Brochures and other information can also be requested directly from the Land Information Access Association, 324 Munson Avenue, Traverse City, MI 49686; phone 231-929-3696. All contributions are tax deductible.