Announcement from Ken Estelle, CEO: Food Bank reaches new milestone

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On March 18, 2014, Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank distributed its 400 millionth pound of food.

The story of how we got from our first pound more than three decades ago to 400 million today is a story of compassion and tenacity. It’s the story of thousands of volunteers, donors and advocates who saw us through three moves, four recessions, hundreds of truck repairs and an expansion from one county into 40. But most importantly, it’s the story of all those children who were able to grow up and live out their dreams because hunger didn’t hold them back.

I’d like to look back at our history and recognize just a few of the dreamers who got us here.

John Arnold, Feeding America West Michigan's longest-serving executive director.

John Arnold, Feeding America West Michigan’s longest-serving executive director.

West Michigan Gleaners, Inc. was incorporated on April 23, 1981, under the direction of Betty Jane Alkema. At that time the Food Bank was operating in 5,000 square feet of rented space on Logan Street in southwest Grand Rapids and distributing about 8,000 pounds of food per month. But it wasn’t long before the idea of food banking took off.

“We had that big warehouse just across the river from downtown Grand Rapids,” said former executive director Gretchen Bouwsma, who oversaw the move to the Jefferson location, “and someone gave us a whole truck full of onions. And the only thing wrong with them [was] they had a little black you had to wipe off.”

When another farmer dropped off a truckload of carrots soon after, the then-revolutionary idea of reclaiming surplus food took root in West Michigan.

The Food Bank distributed its 1 millionth pound of food under Gretchen’s leadership in November 1983, and the following year, our Food Bank tapped in to the national food system by joining the fledgling Second Harvest network.

1989 saw the beginning of John Arnold’s tenure as executive director. In the succeeding decades the Food Bank grew and changed, stretching into the Upper Peninsula and pioneering new ideas like client choice and Mobile Food Pantries that would become hallmarks of American food banking.

Ken Estelle, CEO of Feeding America West Michigan since 2011.

Ken Estelle, CEO of Feeding America West Michigan since 2011.

Since I had the daunting task of stepping into John, Gretchen and Betty Jane’s shoes, Feeding America West Michigan has dedicated more resources to sourcing healthy foods, brought Mobile Food Pantries to the UP for the first time, forged new partnerships with local schools and added Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan to our network of warehouses.

But for as much as the Food Bank has changed over the years, our mission has remained the same: to get food to our neighbors in need. For as long as hunger threatens people in our communities, Feeding America West Michigan will be there to lend a hand.

We hope you’ll be there too.

Michigan startup sends 2,900 meals to local families

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After a two-week campaign, Lansing-based startup Live. Love. Michigan. raised enough money to send 2,900 meals to local families through Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

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Through its Hold on to Hope campaign, the company designed a line of shirts, sweatshirts, pullovers and tank tops expressing the core themes of Feeding America West Michigan’s mission. Fifty percent of each sale was donated to the Food Bank.

Over the next year, Live. Love. Michigan. will design more apparel for the organization, donating 25 percent from each sale. A new campaign for the Baldwin Center in Pontiac began on Monday.

To learn more about Live. Love. Michigan., view the Feeding America West Michigan collection or nominate a nonprofit, visit holdontohope.org.

Late thaw and soggy soil: Food Bank Farm looks ahead to year two

The Food Bank Farm team discusses the season ahead. Left to right: Katie Auwers, food sourcing specialist for Feeding America West Michigan, Dr. Adam Kantrovich, MSU-Extension educator, and Matt Hehl, West Michigan Agricultual Education Center board member.

The Food Bank Farm team discusses the season ahead. Left to right: Katie Auwers, food sourcing specialist for Feeding America West Michiga, Dr. Adam Kantrovich, MSU-Extension educator, and Matt Hehl, West Michigan Agricultual Education Center board member.

It’s March, and even though the fields may still be covered in snow, Feeding America West Michigan has its eye on planting.

The Food Bank Farm project, begun last year with the help of the West Michigan Agricultural Education Center, is entering its second season. As we did last year, we’ll be growing sweet corn. The hope is that, with the help of WMAEC and our volunteers, we’ll be able to get an even larger yield than the 17,192 pounds harvested in 2013.

Simple to plant and fairly resilient in Michigan’s unpredictable weather, sweet corn is one of those vegetables that’s adored by almost everyone. All it takes to prepare is a burner and a soup pot, and it’s packed with fiber, a nutrient sorely lacking in many processed foods. Plus, it comes with its own wrapper.

What has this winter’s relentless snowfall mean for planting?

“Well, we’ll have to wait and see,” said Dr. Adam Kantrovich, a farm management educator with Michigan State University-Extension and a WMAEC board member.

“The positive to having a heavy snowfall is hopefully it will infiltrate into the ground for more ground moisture,” he said

The problem is that a late thaw could throw us off schedule. The soil needs to reach 50 degrees before the seed is planted, or it could rot in the ground.

At this point, Kantrovich estimates that planting will begin in early June. So whether this tough winter turns out to be a blessing or a curse for Michigan corn growers, we’ll have to wait and see.

Hope on their sleeves: Michigan t-shirt startup believes in state’s ability to overcome challenges

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Community investment is an afterthought for most companies, something they work into their business plans after they’ve gotten established. For Live. Love. Michigan. it was the founding principle.

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A marine biology student at Michigan State University, Jake Prusakiewicz’s true love was graphic design, and the Dexter native wanted to use that passion to better his home state.

One of four designs Live. Love. Michigan. has created for Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

One of four designs Live. Love. Michigan. has created for Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

“He kind of got fed up with the way Michigan was being portrayed in the news. He didn’t like the bad press,” said Abigail Ehn, campaign manager for Live. Love. Michigan.’s Hold on to Hope project and Prusakiewicz’s high school classmate. Ehn, Prusakiewicz and designer Nathan Leindecker make up the company’s complete staff.

“He wanted to make Michigan better by recognizing people that were doing something good for the state but weren’t necessarily getting recognized for it.”

On March 17, Live. Love. Michigan. will roll out a line of t-shirts custom-designed for Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank. Created at no cost to the organization, each shirt will return 50 percent of its sale price to the Food Bank, funding the distribution of approximately 50 meals to food-insecure Michiganders per shirt.

Live. Love. Michigan. has raised more than $3,000 for four Michigan-based nonprofits through Hold on to Hope since December.

The state’s charities could certainly use the help.

Michigan’s unemployment rate has been higher than the national average for decades. Poverty is at 16.3%, its largest city is bankrupt, and demand for food assistance is higher than ever, at least in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where Feeding America West Michigan distributed a record-setting 25.6 million pounds of food in 2013.

The question is, why is Michigan worth fighting for?

“We really love nothing more than Michigan,” Ehn said. “It’s home. Being from Dexter, I think we both learned the … importance of a tight-knit community.”

“We don’t need the bad press about Detroit being bankrupt or the lack of jobs or the housing market crash because we believe in it,” she said.

“It’s the people that are going to make the change in the schools and the economy.”

Feeding America West Michigan’s CEO Ken Estelle believes Michigan is equal to the task.

“There’s more than enough food to go around,” Estelle said. “The challenge is getting it to those in need. That’s what we’re here to do, and that’s what Hold on to Hope is going to help us accomplish.”

Visit holdontohope.org to see Live. Love. Michigan.’s line of Food Bank clothing.