At the Friends and Neighbors Network, community is built through jars of peanut butter and cartons of sour cream.
First Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids ran an “in-and-out” food pantry for several years. But as the ministry grew, the project leaders felt something was missing.
“We had many, many years of just handing out food and we realized that a lot of people would ask us, what can we do to help?” says Marlene Cook, who helped develop the program.
In October 2014, First CRC transitioned their ministry into a co-op initiative called the Friends and Neighbors Network (FANN). This community-focused program now has 16 regular attendees who gather twice a month to fill their cardboard boxes or laundry baskets with food and to celebrate fellowship.
First CRC is involved in the community in many ways, but they see food as the starting point.
“Food is the answer,” Marlene says. “It’s a gateway. Food and fellowship is the way people relate to each other in this community.”
Everyone needs to eat, but the cost of groceries can be a challenge. “There were families that had [a lot of] kids, and they’re working these entry-level jobs,” Marlene says. “You just can’t keep up with it.”
When Marlene goes to pick up food at Feeding America West Michigan, she focuses on foods that can be used for multiple meals.
She collects foods like mac and cheese, peanut butter, jelly, spaghetti, soups, breads, cake mixes, school snacks for kids, and, most importantly, fresh fruits and vegetables.
And the members get their input in what they want to cook. “They have something vested in it,” says Erik Boehm, another leader of the group, “so they keep coming back.”
At FANN, people get to know each other’s stories of hunger and fulfillment. Like Jaci’s.
A retired Grand Rapids Press employee, Jaci lives on a small fixed income. She’s grateful for FANN, both the nutritious food and the meaningful community.
Before she came to First CRC’s pantry program, Jaci struggled to afford healthy food. “When it wasn’t available, you just do with what you have,” she says, “which isn’t always nutritious.”
Now Jaci knows she’s not on her own. Every other week, she loads up her bright blue laundry basket an assortment of wholesome foods.
That variety is important to Jaci because she loves to cook. “I’m famous for my pineapple upside-down cake,” she says. “I’ll make it for someone who needs it.”
People in the community look out for one another; “I think the greatest part of a community is to help someone else,” Jaci says.
Fellow member Fatima was introduced to the program through Bates Place, First CRC’s community drop-in center, where received help with moving into a new house.
“And I’ve been here for two years,” she says.
Both she and her sister, Shanta Lee, are regular attendees, and she values the friendships she’s made. “We get to know each other,” she says. “We help each other out with just about everything.”
The food Fatima receives from FANN also feeds her love of cooking. With her large family of kids and grandkids, she has a talent for making food go a long way. With the fresh broccoli crowns she puts in her basket, she makes a sweet-and-sour stir-fry.
When Marlene hands her several cartons of sour cream, Fatima raves about her sour cream cornbread. “It don’t last in my house,” she says. While many are stumped with a single leftover peach, Fatima turns it into a sweet peach barbecue sauce.
And peanut butter — “We got billions of things to do with peanut butter,” she assures.
When Fatima’s not working third shift at a veterans’ home, she loves serving others. “If someone asks me, ‘can you do this?’ I can’t say no,” she says, “I can’t help it. It’s just me.”
She makes cakes for others for special occasions. She has even been taking canning classes at Baxter Community Center, another Feeding America West Michigan partner agency. She’s canned peaches, stewed tomatoes, made salsa for her family and shares with her community.
She even volunteers with Heartside Gleaners Initiative in collecting extra food from local farmers markets on Saturdays and delivering it to people in need.
For Fatima, Jaci and the others, FANN has satisfied both their need for food and their desire for community. The members of the Friends and Neighbors Network are full—and they’re passing that kindness along.
By Ellie Walburg, communications intern