From points to produce

Maria, a high school junior, loves cruising around on her skateboard, tutoring her siblings and studying science and math. She also loves volunteering at the Community Food Club each week, where you’ll find her behind the cash register helping neighbors check out through the Food Club’s points system.

“I really enjoy it. I get to interact with a lot of people,” she said.

Unlike traditional food pantries, customers pay the Food Club a membership fee each month. Ranging between $11 and $15, this fee goes toward staffing, classes and other programs run by the Food Club. Through their membership, customers are able to “purchase” foods using points. Points are allotted based on various factors like income and household size.

Maria first learned about the Food Club when her family became members there. Each month, the family of eight receives 170 points. Neighbors like them can shop as they would at a traditional grocery store up to once per day — another departure from the traditional food pantry model. But unlike at a traditional grocery store, nutritious options are more accessible than less-healthy foods. This is because foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are assigned a lower point value to promote healthy eating.

Six years ago, the Community Food Club formed under the direction of seven Grand Rapids nonprofits, including Feeding America West Michigan. Inspired by Costco’s membership model, the Food Club provides a dignified approach to hunger relief.

Today, Feeding America West Michigan stocks 60 percent of the Food Club’s shelves — 400,000 pounds in 2020 — which helps make their model possible.

“There’s no way we could’ve ever opened our doors without the help of the food bank,” said AJ, the Food Club’s director.

Although the membership fee doesn’t directly go to food, AJ regularly sees the dignity people feel when they’re able to purchase their own groceries. She used to run a traditional pantry, but the way neighbors interact with her at the Food Club feels different.

“They look me in the eye more. They talk more. We share life more,” she said.

Members are just as much a part of making the Food Club possible as donors and staff. Knowing their money is helping the program run, they freely offer input, which AJ believes holds staff to a higher standard.

“Everyone is entitled to a customer experience that is dignified and joyful,” she said.

At the Food Club, fresh foods are the most accessible and are the first thing you see when you walk through the door. This model is helping dispel myths about how low-income families eat.

“It always comes down to access,” said AJ. “A lot of our folks just need a place to get their apples and bananas and oranges.”

After six months of being Food Club members, 94 percent are eating more healthy and fresh food. Another benefit: A third of members no longer need to visit traditional hunger-relief programs after becoming Food Club members.

Help provide dignity-affirming services like the Food Club.