Leelanau News and Events

The Rescuers: How Leelanau-Peninsula Grown Produce Is Getting On The Plates Of Its Own Struggling Families

By Emily Tyra | Aug. 11, 2021

A staggering stat: Leelanau County has the largest affordability gap in the nation between Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the average cost of a meal, according to a study just released by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.

The economic research nonprofit showed how every county in the country stacked up, revealing that in 2020, the average meal in Leelanau County — which is estimated to be about $6.16 — was 68 percent more than the SNAP benefit. What’s more, says Taylor Moore, manager of the Goodwill Northern Michigan program Food Rescue, are the number of households in Leelanau County earning above the poverty level but still struggling to make ends meet: “43 percent are ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) families,” he notes, “and another 7 percent live in poverty.”

Anneke Wageman-Plamondon is a volunteer at Leelanau Christian Neighbors (LCN), who helps coordinate its Monday food pantry. “Our neighbors work more than two jobs, but unfortunately they are not making a living wage to be able to live well in Leelanau County. People have to make hard choices about paying bills or buying nutritious food.”

She adds, “It’s no secret that growing food is hard work involving long hours, farmers need to be fairly compensated for their work, unfortunately the price of it is out of reach for many people working and living in Leelanau County.” She says a goal for LCN is to stock fresh, local produce at the food pantry so “neighbors can stretch their food dollar.”

The good news, says Moore, is that a group of stakeholders — including himself; Wageman-Plamondon; and staff members at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities — are working together weekly as a Northwest Food Coalition “purchasing committee” to secure harvests from area farmers and help food insecure families in Leelanau County and across the region access locally grown food.

Currently funneling financial resources to this intersection of local farmers and families in need is the Local Food Relief Fund (LFRF) which Groundwork launched in early April of 2020, as a pandemic response initiative. Groundwork initially set out to crowdfund $30,000 to go directly towards the costs of purchasing food from local farmers to support three emergency food provider partners.

The community stepped up, exceeding their wildest expectations, shares Meghan McDermott, director of programs at Groundwork. “We met our goal in just 24 hours and ultimately raised nearly $200,000 for the purchase and distribution of locally grown food.”

The LFRF raised $120,929 for the Northwest Food Coalition (NFC), $64,228 for the Manna Food Project, and $7,718 for Food Rescue, to account for the cost of warehousing and distributing purchased local food. (Northwest Food Coalition relies on Food Rescue as its “clearing house.”) Soon, it became clear that NFC would require additional support to purchase and distribute over $120,000 of local food, so Groundwork sought and received a $15,000 grant from the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation to facilitate an expanded “purchasing committee.”  

Wageman-Plamondon is co-chair, a role she says ensures not only that LCN gets fresh food, but also all the meal sites and pantries in the coalition.

Adds Moore, “we have built an entirely new system of working together for the purpose of increasing access to healthy food. We meet nearly every week to make purchases, discuss what food is needed, and develop tools for making more equitable and effective decisions.”

Overall the LFRF presented a 298 percent increase in local food purchasing for NFC. 

Food Rescue’s piece: managing the logistics of distributing food from local farms to the pantries and meal sites. “We currently distribute 8,300 pounds of food Monday through Friday to 70 pantries, meal sites and baby pantries on our Northwest Food Coalition routes in Leelanau, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Antrim, and Kalkaska county.”

Key to the purchasing puzzle is reducing food waste and increasing access to healthy food — ideally at the same time.  “Farmers have been some of our most vocal supporters in our efforts to make sure that good food does not go to waste,” says Moore. “We have worked with 24 farms in Leelanau County and have rescued and distributed 182,887 pounds of produce from them over the last decade.”

Moore says in stewarding relationships with farmers who allow volunteers to harvest excess through Food Rescue’s Health Harvest program (Leelanau County farmer Ryan Noonan was one of the first to assist with a harvest of potatoes and corn), the coalition has “doubled the amount of healthy food available at the pantries, 13 percent of pantries said they had enough produce for everyone who visited in 2014, now it is 68 percent.”

He says relationships are at the crux of ability to source fresh food with consistency: “Last year I picked up a purchased order of cherries from Bardenhagen Berries and this year Pam called me because she had extra cherries that needed rescuing. If anything, Pam knew who to call, that the Food Rescue truck would show up on time, and that we would get those out to pantries, to families.”

While Moore coordinates the pickups with the farmers once the purchase has been given the green light, facilitating the purchase is Christina Barkel, the food equity specialist at Groundwork. “I work to match the needs and resources of area food pantries and meal sites with the capacity of farmers to grow the high-quality, beautiful fresh food,” she says, pointing to a broccoli deal she just brokered: “Reid Johnston, owner of Second Spring Farm in Cedar let me know that he had up to 1,600 pounds of broccoli for sale on a Tuesday.” She brought this opportunity the purchasing committee the very next day.

“Taylor confirmed that Food Rescue was able to handle the logistics of getting the broccoli from the farm, repacking it into smaller quantities, and getting it out to the pantries and meal sites. The committee members checked in about how well previous purchases of broccoli were received at their sites (the answer: quite well!) and voted to make the purchase.”

The broccoli was an “opportunity buy” she says, but overall, the shift from depending on random donations from farmers to paying them a fair price for their produce, allows the coalition to plan what crops will be available, and when. For the farmer, this type of planned purchasing means they can count on a guaranteed market and profit for their crop.

“Our regional farmers have generously supported meal sites and pantries with donations for years,” says Barkel. “Every farmer I know cares deeply about food access. Coalition purchases help their business develop new wholesale markets, keep people employed and generate greater profits that the farmer can then reinvest.”

The effects are real.

“I have heard from farm partners that without coalition purchases, they would not have been able to keep their employees during the COVID uncertainty,” she says, noting “we are always looking for new farmers to collaborate with.”

And the effects are just as real for the families the produce reaches. Wageman-Plamondon says, “Neighbors notice, they use the ‘wow’ word and are excited about their dinner that night. The food is displayed attractively with information on which farm the food came from. We recently had strawberries from Bardenhagen Berries, which was beautiful.”

She adds: “Many families are just barely getting by and the thought of preparing a nutritious dinner after work is just too much. We often have recipes available, volunteers who are happy to talk a few ways to prepare it, or pair veggies with a dip like hummus or a vinaigrette.” The result, she says, is “a presentation of well-thought-out fresh food that conveys dignity and care about their food needs.”

Pictured: Broccoli harvest at Second Spring Farm; Food Rescue at work.

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