Local Food Relief Fund to assist emergency food providers in purchasing produce from farmers in Northern Michigan

Local Food Relief Fund to assist emergency food providers in purchasing produce from farmers in Northern Michigan


Many local families are facing severe economic challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local farmers, too, are suffering, with markets being closed or potentially delayed, and restaurants and schools closed. To help with both food access for families, and financial support for farmers, several area organizations have teamed up to create a Local Food Relief Fund. 100 percent of donations go directly to the purchase of local food for area pantries to distribute. (Harbor Light File photo)

Many local families are facing severe economic challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local farmers, too, are suffering, with markets being closed or potentially delayed, and restaurants and schools closed. To help with both food access for families, and financial support for farmers, several area organizations have teamed up to create a Local Food Relief Fund. 100 percent of donations go directly to the purchase of local food for area pantries to distribute. (Harbor Light File photo)

In times of trouble, look for the helpers. And whenever possible, look for ways to become a helper. In northern Michigan, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragile economic reality for many families, but also, ways for people to step up and make a difference.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, along with Manna Food Project, the Northwest Michigan Food Coalition, and Food Rescue (a Goodwill of Northern Michigan program), just launched a Local Food Relief Fund to assist emergency food providers in eight counties to purchase produce from farmers in Northwest Lower Michigan. The goal is to raise $30,000 in seven days, and 100-percent of donations will go directly to food purchases, with no administrative fees.

It’s a win-win, noted Kim Baker, Manna Food Project executive director, because it gives people the chance to support local farmers, as well as help provide families healthy, local foods during this unprecedented time of need.

“We’ve partnered with Groundwork for the last four years, in an initiative to locally source produce. We’ve been able to purchase nearly 200,000-pounds of produce from within our service counties,” Baker said. “Last year, thanks to Groundwork, the Northwest Michigan Health Department, and our local community foundations, we were about to purchase around $60,000 in local produce from 18-20 farmers in our area. This year, we’ve already heard from about half of those farmers, asking if we can continue this work. My hope, even before the current crisis, was to be able to purchase at the same level, or perhaps even higher.”

Groundwork executive director, HansVoss, said the Local Food Relief Fund is going to provide an avenue to strengthen and grow an already strong partnership with organizations like Manna.

“As an organization, we’ve been working for years to strengthen the resilience of the food system in our region, and increase access to healthy foods for all in our communities. When the Coronavirus hit and we heard about the dramatic uptick in need, we knew that we could help raise awareness, and help support our farmers and local families through fundraising on short notice for critical food access,” Voss said.

This pandemic has put many, many people out of work in northern Michigan. That means a lot of folks are seeking assistance– many for the first time– and providing a level of quality, local foods may help in more ways than one.

For Jessica Stoepker, community engagement and volunteer coordinator at Manna, making it as easy, and painless, as possible for people to access assistance is vital right now.

“We have already seen, and continue to see, a lot of new people, especially new people who have never used food assistance. Many have been embarrassed or just don’t know what they need to do, or even how to ask for help. We’ve had some young moms on the phone crying. People are struggling, and they are also struggling to ask for help. Luckily, we are able to walk them through, and numbers are steadily increasing with our drive-through service, which is easy and quick,” Stoepker noted.

She said on a recent food pick-up day at Manna, the drive-through served 91 separate households between 9 a.m.-noon, with almost two dozen additional pick-ups later in the day. All told, that accounts for more than 300 people, just in the pantry’s direct service area (around Harbor Springs).

Manna also serves as a food bank for a host of organizations and pantries doing food assistance in northern Michigan, so that number, Stoepker stressed, is just a fraction of the full picture of need.

“There is a lot of panic for people right now, and a loss of normalcy. This (food relief fund) is one way to help people, both those who need food, and the farmers who grow it, feel a lot better. As many global problems as we are facing, there are real and immediate needs here locally, and those problems need local solutions.”

Groundwork’s Jen Schaap, a local foods policy specialist who works in the organization’s Petoskey office, added that the impact of COVID-19 creates a significant disruption to revenue projections.

“With schools closed, restaurants closed, indoor farmers markets closed and outdoor farmers markets potentially looking at delayed openings, there is a real market slowdown for our local farmers. We want to be sure they have a place to sell their storage crops and produce growing now,” she said.

Voss said Groundwork– a “think and do” organization that focuses on solutions to improve daily life and build community health– has used its nimbleness to get the Local Food Relief Fund up and running quickly.

“We are repurposing one of our crowdfunding websites, Solarize, for this project. Solarize typically raises funds for school-based solar energy projects, but we just redesigned it for this urgent need,” he said. “We know a lot of our community partners and constituents are looking for ways to jump in and help. All of us want to do something right now, but it’s hard to know how to best make a difference. This gives people a way to make a contribution and trust 100 percent of their donation will go directly to local farmers for local produce, that will then get distributed to local families who need it.”

A win, win, Baker stressed again.

“Over the past four years, I have walked in our local farmers’ fields, I have sat at their kitchen tables, listened while they talked about their own struggles and successes,” he said. “And I can tell you with certainty that our local farmers derive a whole lot of joy in helping feed northwest Michigan. When we at Manna are able to purchase directly from them at wholesale prices, they are very, very proud to help support neighbors who are struggling. Our farmers are often young entrepreneurs. They are some of the most hardworking folks out there, and they are the heart and future of our community. To be able to help them, and help families eat well in a time like this, well, it’s truly a wonderful way to help.”

To give to the Local Food Relief Fund, visit groundworkcenter.org/localrelieffund or call



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