In 1982, a year after our founding, Gretchen Bouwsma became the food bank’s first full-time executive director. Then known as West Michigan Gleaners, the food bank served just 20 agency partners and had only 1,000 lbs. of food stocked in a small, unheated warehouse when she started. In its first year, the food bank distributed just 92,000 lbs. of food, but thanks to Gretchen’s leadership, we reached our millionth-pound milestone in 1983.
Gretchen took inspiration from Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit and our national organization (then known as Second Harvest) to improve the food bank. She wrote in her 1989 farewell letter: “I found that it was necessary to become licensed by the Dept. of Agriculture and that good health practices and frequent inspections were most important in food banking.”
Two years into her tenure, the food bank moved to a larger (and warmer) location on Jefferson Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids. She continued to add staff to her team, and under her guidance, the food bank grew 19 to 50 percent each year. By the time she left in 1989, West Michigan Gleaners had helped distribute 12 million pounds of food to neighbors in need, saving agency partners $17 million on food for their hunger-relief programs.
“What once was an infant, has grown into adulthood,” she wrote in her farewell letter. “I see the food bank as being ready now to take the next step and grow forward. … I am so glad to have been a part of West Michigan Gleaners… I leave this position all the better for having served you!”
Gretchen was very active in the local civil rights movement and even ran for the 93rd House District seat in 1985. After leaving the food bank, she worked as a housing planner at the West Michigan Regional Planning Commission and oversaw the 1990 census. She passed away in 2017.