In Michigan’s most rural areas, those living with food insecurity often face challenges accessing the services they need to thrive. In Howard City, Pine Grove Community Church is fighting to change this, thanks in part to support from the Fremont Area Community Foundation.
Each month, the church hosts a lunch for seniors as well as a Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantry.
The church sits near the county lines that separate Newaygo and Montcalm Counties, both of which demonstrate high need with poverty rates of 16.3 and 17.9 percent, respectively – much higher than Feeding America West Michigan’s service area as a whole.
Rural living can exacerbate poverty and hunger. Job opportunities are commonly scarce, and those without reliable transportation frequently lack access to grocery stores. This lack of access can particularly affect seniors, who are more susceptible to hunger-related illnesses and may suffer more strongly from a lack of interaction with their community.
“There are not many locations for seniors to gather,” explained Kristy Wolters, Pine Grove Community Church’s senior meals program coordinator.
Seeing this need, Pine Grove members began hosting communal meals for seniors more than 15 years ago. The program not only fills these seniors’ stomachs, but their afternoons with time to socialize as well. Between April and Nov., between 120 and 140 seniors attend the lunches. They begin at noon, but many attendees arrive at 10:30 a.m. to chat with friends over punch or coffee.
To keep the program affordable, Kristy turns to Feeding America West Michigan.
“I plan our menu through the food that Feeding America offers at such a reduced cost,” Kristy said. “I cannot count the number of times I have walked into the Feeding America warehouse planning a meal only to find exactly the food I need for that meal.”
Each senior meal takes a lot of preparation and is entirely volunteer-run. Volunteers begin setting up the day before, and on the day of the event, 12 to 18 volunteers help cook, serve, greet, play music, speak, lead bingo and, of course, clean up.
“We see people returning every month,” Kristy said. “They make friendships at the lunches and they meet up with friends. It is a joy to see them spending time together.”
Senior lunches aren’t the only way Pine Grove feeds community members. For the past thirteen years, the church has also hosted Mobile Food Pantries through Feeding America West Michigan. Today, these Mobile Food Pantries offer roughly 5,000 pounds of grocery store staples, including fresh produce, protein and dairy products – enough to send 50 pounds of food home with 100 community members – each month. Throughout 2018, Pine Grove’s Mobile Food Pantries distributed nearly 60,000 pounds of food into the surrounding community.
“We have a chance to build community with them,” food pantry coordinator John VanderPloeg said. “You hear some of their concerns, illnesses and things.”
Moments that stick out to him are when clients arrive saying their cupboards are empty, but leave with a cart full of groceries. Community members benefitting from the Mobile Food Pantries include Teresa and her father Terry. Teresa lives on a fixed income and Terry, recovering from a recent surgery as well as an earlier eye replacement, is rendered unable to work. The Mobile Food Pantries go a long way toward helping them make ends meet.
Henry, one of the church’s volunteers, has participated in the pantries along with his six daughters for the past couple of years. He has noticed how the Mobile Food Pantries bring the community together, and how clear the need is for many attendees. He’s been particularly struck by the poor conditions of people’s cars and how, during the first cold Mobile Pantry, clients often aren’t dressed warm enough for the weather.
“A lot of people who come to the food truck have to carpool. They have to find rides but they get there,” he said.
Henry’s daughters love volunteering and convince their dad to go even when it’s cold out.
“There’s a couple months out of the year that I’d like to skip it, but they won’t let me,” he said. “We try to teach them a lot that it’s important to give when you can. We raised them that it’s important to help other people.”
Like anywhere in the 40 counties Feeding America West Michigan serves, the lines between client and volunteer often blur: 1 in 8 people face food insecurity, so it’s not surprising that volunteers, like Henry and his mother-in-law, sometimes take their turn in line at the end of the day.
Kristy and John see firsthand how the programs they provide impact those in need, but acknowledge that their clients impact them as well.
“The people who attend our lunches are a blessing to us every time they come,” Kristy said. “We hope the free lunches are at least as much a blessing to them as the love of these seniors has been to us.”
“Without the support of Feeding America, we could not run our program,” Kristy said.
Just as agencies like Pine Grove Community Church rely on Feeding America West Michigan to provide affordable food, the food bank relies on its 900 agency partners to bring that food to neighbors in need. Partnerships like this one – and support from organizations like the Fremont Area Community Foundation – have wide-reaching impact. Each partner enables Feeding America West Michigan to further its vision of a community in which all neighbors are nourished and empowered.
Story written by Juliana Ludema, Communication Assistant