A Thumb-based nonprofit will soon help feed the most vulnerable populations in the region by delivering food directly to seniors and children.
The Thumb Food Policy Council — a nonprofit that serves St. Clair, Sanilac, Tuscola, Huron and Lapeer counties — recently received an $852,000 grant funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the Michigan Department of Education to develop food delivery strategies for the region’s most vulnerable populations.
Joe Bixler, president and CEO of the nonprofit, said the organization plans to work with community partners in each county — such as schools, transportation and community organizations — to deliver what is known as last-mile food production.
Instead of people coming to the food distributor, such as in drive-thru food giveaway, food is brought directly to the consumer. Bixler said this method of food distribution is beneficial in that it brings food to people who might otherwise find it difficult to make it to a distribution or don’t have a way to bring home large boxes of food.
Bixler said the nonprofit focuses its efforts on target populations of seniors and children — the two populations that are most vulnerable to food insecurity.
“When we give away food at large events, we’re giving away boxes of food that weigh 25, 30 pounds,” Bixler said. “There’s not very many kids or seniors that are going to be able to carry that back to their homes.”
Many seniors live on a fixed incomes, and so face food insecurity as the price of housing, utilities, gas and food increases, Bixler said. Children and many seniors can’t drive to the store to meet their food needs.
“Kids, they don’t drive and they’re not typically the ones that are showing up at food giveaways so if we have a capture audience already at another location and they’re obviously part of a family, distributing food to them in that fashion makes a lot of sense from an efficiency point of view,” Bixler said.
St. Clair County Council on Aging, YMCA of the Blue Water Area partner with nonprofit
The nonprofit has confirmed partnerships with the the St. Clair County Council on Aging, Inc., and the YMCA of the Blue Water Area, and is working to confirm others, Bixler said.
Local farmers will deliver food to a central distribution center between North Branch and Marlette in the middle of the five-county area. Bixler said he hopes to have the distribution center and program up and running by the Jan. 1. From there, the food will be packaged and delivered to the nonprofit’s partners, who will use their own programs to deliver food directly to the target populations.
Scott Crawford, executive director of the Council on Aging, said they will use the program to deliver fresh bags of produce to seniors who are already served through the county’s Meals on Wheels program, which serves more than 900 homebound seniors.
“To have a little bit of fresh vegetables or produce to go along with (Meals on Wheels), I think it’s a great, healthy benefit for them,” Crawford said.
Josh Chapman, president of the Blue Water Area YMCA, said the Y is the largest provider of youth development in the county other than the Port Huron Area School District. The Y already serves about 20,000 meals a year through it’s various programs.
Chapman said the Y is excited for the opportunity to enhance it’s programs by providing a week of fresh produce for families to take home. Food could be distributed through before and after school programs, youth sports leagues, as well as other mechanisms the nonprofit has yet to explore, such as teaching healthy eating classes for families.
Exposing children to healthy food promotes a healthy lifestyle. When a person’s basic needs such as food are met, it supports higher-level goals, such as learning and developing, Chapman said.
“It’s ensuring that kids have access to healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle, that we are doing our part to eliminate food insecurity, but also expose kids to healthy options…If we can provide healthy produce and expose kids to that opportunity, that they will integrate those into their every day life,” Chapman said.
The food delivery program could be especially beneficial for low-income populations without adequate transportation to stores that offer healthy food options, Chapman said. Those that must rely on public transportation to make trips to the grocery store are limited by how much they can carry.
Food insecurity in rural America
Bixler said food insecurity, which is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life, is a prevalent issue in the nonprofit’s service area and in rural America.
According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, 14.9% of St. Clair County’s population is food insecure, or about 23,770 people. That is 15.1% and about 6,210 people in Sanilac County.
Rural communities struggle with food insecurity in part due to a lack of transportation and public transportation to food distribution centers, Bixler said.
“Food insecurity is a heck of a lot more prevalent in rural communities because there are transportation issues,” Bixler said. “The territory is much larger.”
The program will also benefit local small- to mid-sized farmers by providing a guaranteed buyer for their food all year-round, which will encourage some to convert to year-round production through the use of green or hoop houses.
Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or [email protected]