Tomatoes Z&N farm

How every Michigan food pantry can partner with local farmers

This op-ed first published in Bridge Michigan.

I’m thinking of a day a few years back when I witnessed something that was plain on the surface, but which was actually evidence of a micro-revolution in food access, and it happened in a Traverse City parking lot.

It represents a revolution that provides far healthier foods for food pantry and meal site clients, while providing economic support for farm families and communities. And what I saw that day was a change that can benefit farmers and families all across Michigan, if we try.

What I witnessed was 40-pound boxes of fresh squash being handed out to pantry managers from a farm pickup truck. I know that doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it is.

The idea of providing pantry and meal-site customers with fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods is revolutionary in today’s America. 

Food pantries generally rely on inexpensive, calorie dense items, like bread, dried pasta and tomato sauce, canned soups, peanut butter and canned proteins. These items provide critical calories and are easy to store and distribute, but often lack the nutritional benefits of fresh produce.

The the idea of providing pantry and meal-site customers with fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods is revolutionary in today’s America. Photos by Jeff Smith

Nutrition-related illnesses, like diabetes and high blood pressure disproportionally affect food insecure people, so elevating nutrition quality can change lives. Nutritious food improves physical health and healing, sustains a positive mood and inspires confidence and dignity. 

Everyone deserves highly nutritious food, but we know accessing this food is not easy. Food pantries and meal sites go above and beyond to help meet a critical need in their communities, no matter the type of food they are able to distribute.  

The squash I saw in the farm pickup was evidence that we can do better for our neighbors in need. Everyone benefits when locally grown food is distributed at pantries and meal sites because when nutritious food is available, individuals improve their odds of thriving and communities grow stronger.

Here’s how our system works. Planning for the season begins when snow is deep here in Northern Michigan. I work with the Northwest Food Coalition (NFC) Purchasing Committee to identify which local products — like onions, carrots, cabbage, eggs and more — food pantries and meal sites need. Then I communicate with our farmers and food producers, who commit to growing the quantities and types of crops requested. 

Farmers benefit when they know in advance what NFC will buy, because they know precisely which crops to plant, when and how much. These handshake agreements also mean farmers know they can sell their crops when they’re ready. Pantries and meal sites benefit because they, too, can better plan operations, schedule when specific fresh foods will arrive and avoid having too much one week and not enough—or none—the next.

At harvest, our partner Goodwill Northern Michigan Food Rescue sends a truck to fetch the crop. The driver returns to the warehouse, where Food Rescue volunteers repack food into boxes, and then drivers deliver the food to pantry and meal sites across the region. (An efficient and reliable local supply chain has replaced the parking lot food drops of the past.) 

The Northwest Food Coalition pays farmers a fair market price via donations from foundations and individual donors. In this way, thousands of pantry and meal site customers access more healthy food, grown locally. 

More broadly, the entire local community benefits from food dollars kept nearby. Dollars going to local farm families are spent with local businesses, and these dollars increase the incomes of others as they cycle through. Local dollars also increase jobs and business tax revenues for local governments. 
A study by the American Independent Business Alliance showed that spending at small independent retailers returns more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain competitors.

From a community health standpoint, local food is often the healthiest food because nutrient quality diminishes during long shipping. Healthy local food can help reverse the growing list of diet-related diseases that are limiting people’s lives and bankrupting our state and national health care systems.
The process we created and continue to refine up here in northern Michigan is rare for food pantries in our nation, but momentum around local food purchasing is growing, and these systems are replicable in your community. 

Providing locally grown food to pantries and meal sites is not complicated conceptually, but it does take commitment, persistence, management (you should see my crop contract spreadsheets) and funding. You can start small, perhaps by building a relationship with one farmer or nearby gardener and growing from there. 

Seeing food pantry shelves loaded with high quality produce — looking as good as even the best grocery store’s produce section — and witnessing community growth and resilience as a result, makes the extra effort worthwhile.Groundwork logo for story end

Christina Barkel

Christina Barkel is Groundwork’s Food Access Specialist.