United Church Outreach Ministry is doing more than just fighting hunger in their Wyoming, Michigan, community. They’re on a mission to help their neighbors build healthy lifestyles, starting with the food they eat.
Program Director Shawn Keener has been involved with UCOM, one of Feeding America West Michigan’s agency partners, for 20 years and loves the community and holistic care.
The focus of the ministry is two-fold: material resources and education. “What brings people in is the food part,” Shawn says. “That’s when we find out that these families have so many other needs.”
The food pantry acts as a gateway and opens up other opportunities in assistance including classes in fitness, gardening, cooking, finances and health.
As program director, Shawn coordinates food distribution in partnership with other organizations, especially Feeding America West Michigan, where much of the food in UCOM’s pantry comes from. She orders healthy items like produce, dried beans, rice milk, and other foods low in sodium and sugar from the food bank on a weekly basis. “We would not have the quantity if it wasn’t for Feeding America,” Shawn says.
An important initiative at UCOM is the Pantry Plate, a visual reminder based on the USDA’s MyPlate that emphasizes healthy eating. With this guide, families are encouraged to pick out more fruits and vegetables, with smaller portions of proteins, grains, and dairy. “We want people to get as much nutrition as they can from the pantry,” Shawn says.
With the Pantry Plate guidelines, “we’re encouraging them to try new things and ‘eat around the plate’ instead of just one category,” Shawn says. “The families can choose whatever works best with them within those guidelines so that they’re getting something from all the food categories.”
Produce is always a popular item at pantries, and UCOM emphasizes its presence on the shelves. “It’s not just empty calories but healthier food choices,” Shawn says, “and healthier foods are often more expensive and more difficult to get.”
In addition to Feeding America West Michigan, UCOM also receives produce from local gardens. UCOM cultivates a small garden plot on their campus and receives produce from the community garden Metro Health helped them create at nearby Marquette Park. Local growers like Groundswell Community Farm in Zeeland and Green Wagon Farm in Ada also pitch in to ensure their shelves are stocked with the freshest produce.
A group of clients even had the opportunity to visit Green Wagon Farm and personally experience where and how their food gets from farm-to-table. “People are learning a little bit more about where the food comes from,” Shawn says.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are go-to items for UCOM client Lisette in providing healthy meals for her husband and three hungry boys.
Lisette’s income isn’t big to begin with, but after she’s paid housing, utilities and other expenses, she doesn’t have much left over for healthy food.
With access to the pantry, she now has new opportunities in incorporating more produce and healthy options into meals.
“There’s a lot of variety, lots of different plants,” Lisette says. “There’s leaf-looking things and I’m like ‘wow,’ just learning all these vegetables.”
When her sons come home from rugby or soccer practice, she can provide a healthy dinner with food from the pantry. “I always make sure they have vegetables. If I have vegetables they don’t like, I try and sneak them in.” She says she mixes vegetables in with stews or makes cauliflower rice. “Spaghetti squash is my favorite now—that I got from the pantry.”
Because of the healthy options on the shelves at UCOM, Lisette says, “everything has changed. My life has changed.”
By Ellie Walburg, communications intern