When you think of food distributed at food pantries, what images come to mind?
In 2018, the Northwest Food Coalition, in partnership with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan, set out to increase the amount of fresh, healthy and locally grown produce available to neighbors accessing food at member food pantries and meal sites.
The Coalition, with funding from local Rotary clubs and private community donors, logistical support from Food Rescue, and program support from the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, developed the Farm 2 Neighbor program, which established the process for the Coalition to collectively purchase produce in bulk from local farmers, which was then distributed to members to stock their food pantry shelves and meal site menus, with items like carrots, asparagus, greens, tomatoes, squash and more throughout the growing season.
When Groundwork launched the Local Food Relief Fund last spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic impact in our region, the idea was simple — send community-raised funds to our partner organizations who provide emergency food, and connect them to farmers and food producers in the area who then could sell their products to those partners.
This win-win solution provided fresh, healthy and local food to our partners at the Northwest Food Coalition, Manna Food Project and Food Rescue, and was meant to be a pandemic response to support both food pantries and local farmers during a time of great uncertainty.
Nearly one year later, as vaccines become accessible and life returns to a new normal, demand for fresh food at pantries and meal sites remains strong. Why?
In short, because our regional farmers grow some of the highest quality and nutritious food anyone can get. The need for healthy food in food pantries transcends pandemics — vulnerable neighbors are at high risk for diets that lack a full complement of healthy nutrients.
When systems are in place for emergency meal providers to be able to purchase food at a fair price from our local growers, this strengthens our regional food system’s resilience as well as increases the amount of healthy food in pantries.
The economic investment in our region’s farmers is something to be celebrated.
This spring, the purchasing committee of the Northwest Food Coalition has already arranged nearly $118,000 in handshake agreements for future purchases with local farmers. That means farmers have a guaranteed market for their crops, and can plan on significant investment that supports their ability to pay for seeds, labor and logistics during the growing season.
For the Coalition, knowing what produce items are available and when they can expect to receive these items from Food Rescue makes it easier for pantries to make healthy food a key part of their offerings to the community.
There is much work still to be done on systemic factors that contribute to food insecurity in our region, but this local purchasing model is one example of how collaborative efforts and strategic economic progress contribute to a system where healthy food is accessible to all.
Christina Barkel is food equity specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.