As food prices surge to record highs, a pair of West Michigan food banks — Comstock Park-based Feeding America West Michigan and Ottawa Food in Holland Charter Township — have secured public funding to expand their services and meet growing demands.
Feeding America West Michigan $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding from Kent County to finance a move from its current headquarters in Comstock Park to a new, larger facility in Kentwood.
Feeding America West Michigan distributes food to people in need across 39 counties in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. President and CEO Ken Estelle said the food bank has experienced a rapid increase in first-time visitors and consistent day-to-day need. In contrast, before the current demand, community members utilized the organization’s services in times of crisis.
“During the first COVID event in 2020, overnight we saw a 200- to 300-percent increase in need and an 80-percent decrease in donations,” Estelle said. “Now we are dealing with the effects of long-term inflation. So it’s not the spike we saw during COVID, but we continue to see more and more people coming in for the first time, which is a phenomenon we hadn’t really expected.”
According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, households faced a 12.4-percent increase in food prices from November 2021 to November 2022. Major grocery store groups posted increases ranging from 8 percent for meats, poultry, fish and eggs to 15.4 percent for other food at home.
The increase in food costs right on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a drastic decrease in donations, has put unprecedented demand on food banks.
With a dramatic increase in demand and already tight space, the food bank resorted to offsite storage. At one point, it had 2 million pounds of food in rented offsite facilities.
The county’s allocation will help Feed America West Michigan retrofit a 20,000-square-foot facility in Kentwood that the food bank purchased in 2021. The food bank’s current space in Comstock park is 55,000 square feet.
The additional space will increase the food bank’s distribution by 50 percent, from 25 million meals in 2020 to 37.5 million meals a year.
The food bank’s current refrigeration space is 4,500 square feet, but bringing the Kentwood facility online will more than double that. Estelle said that nutrient-dense foods tend to be the most perishable, and the increased refrigeration capacity will allow Feeding America West Michigan to work in step with local public health initiatives to increase access to healthy foods among vulnerable populations.
“We will be able to dramatically expand our ability to distribute nutritious products, mainly refrigerated and frozen, to those communities, especially where we have people suffering from health issues that are directly related to what they eat,” Estelle said.
The project proposal also noted that while the limited space in Comstock Park restricted operations, the organization had little time to manage partnerships because it needed to constantly react to spatial needs.
“We will be able to have more space to increase the variety of food we can take in, which is really what is being asked of us by our partners,” Estelle said.
More space will allow the food bank to manage a wider variety of targeted programs, such as senior meals and kid lunch programs.
“The new facility will allow us to expand those programs dramatically as we will have the space to package more meals,” Estelle said. “That, to me, is the really exciting part.”
According to a report from accesskent.com, food insecurity overall in Kent County as of 2020 was 15 percent, while households with children experience food insecurity at a higher rate of 23 percent. Estelle estimates the food bank’s expanded capabilities with the new space will affect 70,000 people in Kent County.
Meanwhile, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 22 approved a request from Ottawa Food as one of 24 community projects receiving a share of $32.7 million in ARPA funding.
The $486,675 allocation will allow the group to purchase two more food rescue vehicles, fund three staff positions and purchase and implement an app designed to streamline food recovery efforts.
These measures will take the group’s pilot food recovery program, Lakeshore Food Rescue, from Holland and Zeeland to the rest of the county.
Managed by Holland-based nonprofit Community Action House, Lakeshore Food Rescue works with food suppliers including grocery stores, markets, farmers and restaurants to collect surplus food and redistribute it to households in need. Community Action House will also manage the expansion.
Ottawa County Strategic Impact Director Paul Sachs said the proposal from Ottawa Food touched on several areas of need and fit the funding criteria.
“We had a multitude of important county projects that were brought forward that had tremendous merit,” Sachs said. “For me, this project demonstrates a lot of forward-thinking by rescuing food that would otherwise be destined for the landfill and providing advantages to the local agriculture industry, all while supporting those in need.”
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