Thumb-area collaboration blesses bus riders with food and more

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Located in Michigan’s Thumb region east of Bay City, Tuscola County has long had its share of food insecurity, and the pandemic only made that situation worse. For over a decade, Tuscola Intermediate School District (TISD) has worked with Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) to respond to needs in the community by delivering nutrition education and physical activity promotion through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) programs in TISD’s schools and communities.

TISD’s SNAP-Ed programs are made possible through MFF SNAP-Ed funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan. 

“We use a variety of SNAP-Ed interventions and strategies here. For example, we run MFF’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities™ program in our kindergarten, second, and fourth grade classrooms in Huron, Tuscola, and Sanilac counties to teach children and their families how to choose healthy foods and be physically active,” says Tracy Robinson, TISD’s regional school health coordinator. “We also use Rec-Connect™ for kids and seniors to inspire and empower them to engage in physical activity more often. And we are doing the Promoting Active Communities™ assessment to better understand the barriers to active living that people experience, so that we can find solutions to overcome those barriers across the region."

When COVID-19 hit, Robinson got together with Karly Creguer, the supervising and staff development educator for the Health and Nutrition Institute at Michigan State University (MSU) Extension’s Tuscola County Extension Office to come up with a plan for addressing their region’s food security issue. MSU Extension is also a State Implementing Agency of MDHHS for SNAP-Ed in Michigan. Robinson and Creguer thought that by leveraging their SNAP-Ed work and experience, they might be able to catalyze a new community effort to address food insecurity, especially during the pandemic.

Creguer had volunteered with Tuscola County’s “Thumb Blessing Box” campaign, which places totes at various locations where residents drop off nonperishable items for those in need.

While this program augmented emergency food pantries and pop-up food pantries that came on the scene during the pandemic, through her SNAP-Ed work, Robinson worked with local communities in Tuscola County to complete a policy, systems, and environmental change assessment and knew the food access issues were exacerbated by a lack of access to transportation, that many residents didn’t have a way to get to the existing blessing boxes.

“We had been talking about new distribution methods to get the food to those with limited access and thought what if we could team up with the public transportation authority? We had such a surge in need for food during the pandemic and needed to find another way to get food to the people who couldn’t get to the pantries or pop-up locations,” Robinson says. “So Karly and I thought it seemed a natural fit to put a Thumb Blessing Box on one of the Thumbody Express buses and have the bus act as a mobile distribution site.”

The pair then brought on another collaborator for their project: Lauren Amellal, manager at the Caro Farmers Market. Amellal manages a donation station at the market, where visitors can donate nonperishable food items, toiletries, and cleaning products.

Lauren Amellal, Karly Creguer, Tracy Robinson, and Human Development Commission Bus Coordinator Larry Boitel.“When the crate gets full, the Thumbody Express bus stops by the farmers market and loads up the actual Thumb Blessing Box on the bus,” she says.

Amellal notes that farmers market vendors started donating fresh produce for the Thumb Blessing Box, which opened up access to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables for local families facing food insecurity.

To expand on the access to farm-fresh food, the three collaborators developed tokens modeled after the way that the SNAP token system works at other farmers markets. Bus passengers just take tokens from the Thumb Blessing Box to the Caro Farmers Market and exchange them at the market for locally grown fresh produce. Farmers can then exchange the token for payment by the market. However, to date, the farmers have just donated the produce and haven’t sought out reimbursement.

The Thumb Blessing Box on the Thumbody Express. Then, last September, the Caro Farmers Market reorganized and as a result, the market started accepting SNAP as a form of payment. This meant shoppers on tight budgets could finally use their SNAP benefits to purchase fresh produce at the farmers market. This makes it possible for families to afford, purchase, and consume more fresh fruits and vegetables and strengthen their local food systems.

“We are hoping to add MFF SNAP-Ed programming along with educational pieces at the farmers market to support the shoppers,” Amellal says. “The SNAP-Ed programs are really valuable to our community.”

The Thumb Blessing Box on the Thumbody Express. As they watched their small mobile food pantry venture roll out, the three came up with a grander idea: to put Thumb Blessing Boxes on every Thumbody Express bus and have a dedicated bus that brings residents of Caro’s public and senior housing communities to the farmers market every Saturday. They are currently working out details with the public transportation authority and are seeking sponsorships from area organizations and businesses to fund the expanded program in 2022.

“Healthy food access is one of the pillars of SNAP-Ed that we really focus on. We are brainstorming ways to keep the project sustainable,” Creguer says. “We would love to see a Thumb Blessing Box on every bus. They have about 12 running at any given time. With only one box on one bus, the resource is a little limited and only available to those that ride that particular bus. We’d like to scale up.”

Collaboration has been key to the project so far, and it will keep the effort growing as more community partners come on board to sponsor the Thumbody Blessing Boxes. Robinson says the collaboration between MFF, MSU Extension, Thumbody Express, and the Caro Farmers Market has been a wonderful experience that helps get the work done and provides nutritious food to families in the community.

The Thumbody Express.“Everyone involved is very willing to look at the needs of the community and do what they can to support them,” she says. “Because of our MFF SNAP-Ed work over the years, I have come to have an understanding about addressing the needs people have related to food and nutrition in our community. Our SNAP-Ed programming helps us deepen our understanding about the barriers people face in our community. It has helped me recognize those barriers and inform how to address them during the pandemic. I’m learning a lot and I really enjoy the opportunity to collaborate. It has been great to work with the MFF team and the other organizations to find real solutions. It takes a community. It really does."