Not long after the sun rises over downtown Muskegon, the volunteers begin to arrive.
On a day that promises spring — the once-mountainous piles of snow in the city are gone in the face of 60-degree weather, and there is more water than ice atop nearby Muskegon Lake — they strap on their face masks and take their places at tables filled with food inside the Muskegon YMCA.
Alongside staff from the Y, the volunteers on a recent Friday start to fill bag after bag with the ingredients for what will soon become thousands of meals for children throughout the region: from oranges and green beans to macaroni and cheese and milk, sloppy joes and more.
Hours later, they’re ready to distribute about 11,000 free meals to the long line of cars waiting outside the nonprofit’s headquarters, a brick building at Third Street and Houston Avenue in the commercial corridor known as Midtown Muskegon. The meals, given out every Friday in bags that provide a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches, are available to anyone 18 years old or younger.
‘People are hurting’
“There’s such a need for this,” says volunteer Jerri Garza, a retiree who previously worked with children with disabilities in the Muskegon Public Schools and who, along with her husband, Ben, delivers more than 100 meals a week from the Muskegon YMCA to families without transportation. “People are hurting. I deliver to a grandmother who watches her five grandkids while their mom is at work. She has cancer. She answered the door one day, started to cry, and said, ‘You don’t know how much this means to me.’”
People line up in their cars for bags of food distributed by the Muskegon YMCA.
These are stories — of hunger and struggle and anxiety and sickness — that those involved with the Muskegon YMCA food distribution program have heard time and again since they began the initiative in August 2020. They are stories rooted in the layers of our lives: the pandemic, of course, but also the long-existing barriers people have faced when trying to access healthy food before COVID-19, like systemic racism. Black families in Muskegon County are almost twice as likely as white households to struggle to pay for basic needs, like food and rent, according to data from United Way, and that has only increased during the pandemic, when, at one point, Michigan had the highest Black unemployment rate in the country.
Too, these are stories rooted in the food deserts (areas where a large portion of the population has little access to affordable, nutritious food) that occur throughout the Muskegon area, including in the Nelson neighborhood, where the YMCA is located. The Michigan Health Endowment Fund, for example, reported in 2020 that Muskegon has one of the most “significant pressing needs” in the state when it comes to growing food access for low-income residents.
Fallout from COVID-19
The barriers residents have long faced have collided with the fallout from COVID-19, leaving people to wonder how they’re going to make it. In addition to the ever-present sickness, or threat of sickness, that has permeated our lives during the pandemic, there are the furloughs and layoffs we’ve seen occur throughout the year.
Children have been home from school, forcing financially struggling families — who could once depend on free or reduced-price meals at school — to provide significantly more food at home. And anyone who is relying on public transportation to get to a major grocery store has had to do so at a time when simply being close to other people is a major health risk.
Add to that the problems accessing unemployment benefits and the mental health struggles that have significantly increased during the pandemic, and you have barriers to being able to pay for basic needs, like food, that seem less like barriers and more like crushing weights.
USDA grant helps
Muskegon YMCA employees well understand all of this, and they’ve long been working on addressing systemic issues and food access for years. Their Veggie Van, for example, travels around the county to connect low-income or mobility-limited residents with affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.
Milk, fruit and other food staples are packed into bags given to those in need.
So, once the pandemic began last year, the nonprofit’s employees immediately began discussing ways to meet some of the most pressing needs coming out of COVID-19 and set their sights on increasing access to healthy food. They were able to use a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant that typically funds the summer food program for students at the Y’s Camp Pendalouan and use that money to create the food distribution program that is slated to run at least through September.
“Hopefully, we’ll work our way out of a job. We hope that people will be food secure in Muskegon, and we won’t be required anymore,” Muskegon YMCA CEO and Executive Director Bruce Spoelman says. “Until then, we hope to meet that need.”
Need greater than expected
Right now, the need is certainly there. Handed out in a neighborhood where about 90% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, in a city where approximately 68% of residents struggle to pay for basic needs like rent and food, and in a county where the number of people unable to make ends meet financially continues to grow each year, the meals coming from the YMCA are welcomed with open arms — and far more so than organizers anticipated.
“When we started in August, our goal was to get up to 1,000 meals a week,” Spoelman says. “We reached our goal by the second week, and it’s just been going up since.”
Since then, the Muskegon YMCA has served more than 170,000 meals and is now providing about 11,000 meals every Friday.
Healthy, local, culturally diverse
And, Spoelman emphasizes, the meals are healthy with menus that vary weekly. They’re also filled with locally sourced goods: the YMCA uses fresh produce purchased from the Veggie Van, bread from Morat’s Bakery in downtown Muskegon, milk from Country Dairy, and fruit from such local farms as S&L Blueberry Farm in Nunica.
A resident pulls up to the Muskegon YMCA distribution site with a list of needed food items.
He also points out the nonprofit is continuing to grow its roster of partnerships with local businesses — on March 26, for example, chef LaKisha Harris from Soul Filled Eatery, a restaurant that recently opened in Muskegon Heights, will serve the meals provided that day. The menu includes creamy butter grits, collard greens, cornbread, red beans and rice, and barbecue chicken. Harris noted her restaurant will continue to partner with the Y in the weeks to come, providing items such as macaroni and cheese, waffles, and turkey knuckle rice bowls.
“We’re going way beyond the minimal requirements,” Spoelman says, referring to what’s mandated by the USDA grant. “We’re providing meals that are nutritious and taste good, and we want to make them more culturally diverse. We’re exploring menus that are soul food-based and Central American cuisines. We’re looking to partner with local suppliers.”
Inspired by empathy
Myrt Stadler, a 77-year-old retiree who each week delivers between 30 and 40 YMCA meals to households without transportation, says the families she brings the food to are consistently happy with the meals.
“They always have really nice food,” Stadler says. “If it wasn’t for the YMCA, a lot of these kids would maybe have a biscuit to go to bed with.”
“A lot of the families are hard up because of being laid off from work,” Stadler continues. “There’s a lot of people who have applied for unemployment back in March (2020) but still haven’t gotten it.”
Stadler, who was born and raised in Hart and now lives in Muskegon, knows what it is to be hungry — her father was killed in World War II, and she and her eight siblings “grew up dirt poor.”
“I know what these kids are going through because there were times I didn’t have anything myself,” Stadler says, explaining it’s this empathy that inspires her to help with the YMCA meals.
“I can associate with the way they feel, the life they have,” she continues. “I try to do the best I can to see these kids have food.”
‘Filling a need’
Roger Walstra, a Norton Shores resident who is retired from Herman Miller, spends about seven hours every Friday volunteering with the YMCA’s food distribution program.
“I think the impact is great,” Walstra says of the program. “The meals are great. We’re really filling a need in the community. If you base the economy on your 401(k), you’re saying the economy’s good, but with so many places closed, there’s a lot of hurting people out there. It’s going to be tough for a while.”
“We all need to care for each other,” Walstra adds. “It makes me feel really good knowing a kid is going to sleep with a full belly tonight. That’s a good thing.”
The Muskegon YMCA offers free meals to anyone 18 years old or younger or their caregivers every Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Meals are distributed at the YMCA’s headquarters at 1115 Third St. in Muskegon. Because of COVID-19, those picking up meals are asked to remain in their vehicles. For more information about upcoming meals, please click here.
The Muskegon YMCA is also looking for additional volunteers and community partners to assist them in their food distribution efforts. To get involved, please call 231-722-9622 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.