This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
When Holland, Mich.-based Community Action House
transformed its emergency food pantry into a Food Club and Opportunity Hub
in October 2019, John*, a frequent pantry customer, bought a membership. In April 2020, as he checked out his purchases, the volunteer cashier recognized him — and remembered the pantry days when staff had to help him get out of his car, settle him into a wheelchair, and push him around the pantry to help him select items. Now, John was on his own two feet, pushing his grocery cart totally independently. When the cashier asked him what happened, John shared that he had lost 50 pounds and regained his mobility since gaining access to the healthier foods that the Food Club made affordable for him.
"To see him regain his own mobility over such a short period of time just through healthy food access was really powerful," says Scott Rumpsa, Community Action House chief executive officer. "... To see him just smiling in line, and for him to say, ‘You've recognized me. You see me. You know me. You care,’ that’s what always sticks in my head."
Food clubs are small nonprofit grocery stores that make healthy food available at a truly affordable price.
"It's a sliding scale, but most of our members pay $13 a month," says Alma-Jean Fossel, executive director, Community Food Club of Grand Rapids
. "Once they pay that fee, we give them points to shop with. Points work like dollars in our store. For that $13 that most members are paying, they're getting about a week's worth of food with an average retail value of $175."
Alma-Jean Fossel at the Community Food Club of Grand Rapids.
The food clubs enroll members living at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level
. For example, a single individual with an income of $29,160, or a family of four with an income of $60,000 or less, can qualify to join for a low monthly cost. Food items are priced in points. Healthier items like fresh fruits and vegetables cost fewer points than less healthy alternatives. As a result, customers like John can afford to buy the healthy foods they want.
Based on the model developed by the Community Food Club of Grand Rapids, the Community Action House Food Club serves more than 1,400 income-challenged families in Ottawa and Allegan counties each week. Another food club based on the model, Lakeshore Food Club
in Ludington, serves residents of Mason County. And with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the model will be replicated in Muskegon and Jackson counties, and hopefully beyond.
Community Action House's Food Club and Opportunity Hub.
John’s success story isn’t the only one that Rumpsa has heard since the Food Club opened in Holland. Several customers who had been diagnosed with prediabetes have told staff that their diagnoses have been reversed.
"I'd like to emphasize how helpful it was to see the other two food clubs push this forward and to be able to watch, learn, and ask questions," Rumpsa says. "Likewise, we've made an intentional approach to other food access providers across the state and region who have been asking questions. We are sharing our information, our experience with this new model, and this new approach to food access."
New locations adapt model to regional needs
While the model each of these food clubs was based on is the same, each location has modified it to meet local community needs. As its name suggests, the Community Action House Food Club and Opportunity Center augments its operations by connecting food club clients and other community members to a vast number of services offered by other community-based organizations.
"We've always had a more-than-food approach during our 50-year history as an organization," Rumpsa says. "Our food club members come by on one side of our location and shop for that food they need but just can't afford every week. And then on the other side, we have this one-stop-shop resource hub where they are able to have a seamless connection to working with our resource navigation team, our financial wellness team, our housing counselors, and also with 18 other on-site program partners."
Because Mason County is a rural community with very limited resources, the Lakeshore Food Club operates in much the same way as Holland’s or Grand Rapids’, but with a rural emphasis. And because the Mason County median household income is around $55,000, a greater percentage of residents qualify to be members of the food club. The food club has 1,900 member families and averages 100 members shopping in its store every day, six days a week.
"Where Grand Rapids or Holland have area partners that they can refer their members to or can partner with, we are the leader of providing food access to this community," says Lakeshore Food Club Executive Director O'Nealya Gronstal.
In addition to purchasing 90% of its food with the help of donations and grants, the club also purchases fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers in Mason, Oceana, and Muskegon counties. It also has a special relationship with Ludington-based Campbell Crossings Farm
, which planted its crops based on foods that the food club knew its customers were looking for. While farmer Mary Campbell still sells produce at her farmstand, she has quit vending at the local farmers market so she can sell the bulk of her harvest to the food club.
"She is providing for her family through the farm, and she is providing for her community," Gronstal says. "It is an absolutely beautiful, beautiful marriage that we have."
Access plus autonomy
Members shopping at food clubs not only benefit from having access to affordable healthy foods. They also enjoy shopping at a real grocery store, making food choices that their families enjoy eating. With healthy alternatives like fresh fruits and veggies featured at the front of the store and on end caps usually reserved for candies or junk-food treats, food clubs empower people with income challenges to meet their family’s nutritional needs with dignity.
The Community Food Club of Grand Rapids.
"Every member that comes in and shops with us has full autonomy. They make all of their own choices," Fossel says. "We believe firmly that people know what their families need to eat to be successful."
The Grand Rapids food club purchases some of its fresh produce from New City Farm, an urban farm and youth ministry in Grand Rapids, and receives donations from vendors of Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Farmers Market. Members purchase between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds of fresh produce every day.
Alma-Jean Fossel at the Community Food Club of Grand Rapids.
"Our members want to eat healthy, and they often know how to eat healthy," Fossel says. "For them it’s about having access. That's the key word."
Gronstal tells the story of a food club member named Candace. Candace knocked on Gronstal's door one day, came in, and started to cry. She then told Gronstal, "You have allowed me to be a fun mom again. When we are at the local grocery store, usually the answer when my daughter sees something is ‘No.’ Here, I’m able to say 'Yes.'"
"She said ... this is their family's favorite grocery store," Gronstal says. "Her kids don't even know that they are coming to a place where food-insecure families shop — they just know it as their favorite grocery store. And that really allows me to go to bed at night and know that we've done something good."
*Name changed for privacy.
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Community Food Club of Grand Rapids photos by Kristina Bird.