Food Club provides dignity in grocery store setting

Starting this fall, The Food Club will greet customers with a “radical welcome,” Community Action House Executive Director Scot Rumpsa says. 

The low-cost, members-only grocery store will replace Community Action House’s food pantry and offer customers choice and dignity along with food and hygiene staples in the grocery store setting, he says.

The CAH Food Club will open in the former Yff’s Food Farm, a neighborhood grocery store that closed in the ‘80s. Most recently, the building at 739 Paw Paw Drive was owned by Semco Energy.
Yff's Food Farm
Opportunity 

Alongside the grocery store will be the Opportunity Hub where Community Action House staff can connect community members to resources such as financial and housing education, a savings club, and foreclosure prevention.

“Every little bit helps, and it makes your life better,” pantry guest Tim says in a promotional video for the new Food Club.

“We have a one-income family and it’s really important to have that place to go to go shopping on a budget,” his partner, Erica, says. “The ability to have someone you can trust and not feel ashamed say ‘hey I’m hurting right now’ — that’s important, because sometimes it’s hard to ask for help.”

The Goal

Community Action House is in the final stretch of fundraising for the $4.25 million, 16,000-square-foot project, and an anonymous donor is matching gifts dollar-for-dollar up to $150,000 for the months of May and June. So far, the organization has received hundreds of donations and raised $3.75 million, bringing them over 88% of the way toward their goal. To learn more about the project or to donate to the campaign, visit hzfoodclub.org.

Construction on the site began in March.

For more than 50 years, Community Action House has helped families along the Lakeshore lift themselves out of poverty with food, housing, resource connection, and financial wellness programs.

The Food Club will be modeled closely on Kent County’s Community Food Club where more than 90% of members reported an increase in their consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“It will look and feel just like it would at Aldi or Meijer,” Rumpsa says. “Folks will be able to just come in with their grocery cart and shop.”

Although Community Action House operates the region’s largest frontline food pantry, it’s limited to three hours a day, Monday through Friday. The Food Club and Opportunity Hub would be open six days a week with longer hours that are more convenient to customers.

“So much of what we do is volunteer dependent,” Rumpsa says of the proposed hours.

The nonprofit has begun a volunteer drive in addition to seeking money to complete the project.

More choice, more efficiently

The grocery store setting will offer more choices of more fresh food more efficiently, Rumpsa says.

Many in low-income households struggle to get enough fruits and vegetables in their diet. Those items are often more expensive and the first to get cut from family meals when times are tight, Rumpsa says.

“Our cost per healthy meal on the table decreases substantially,” he says.

The membership fee is based on a family’s income and ranges from $11 to $17 a month. The amount of food they are allowed to buy with their points each month depends on the size of the family.

They will be allowed to use their points as they see fit and visit the store as often as it suits them.

Subsidizing health

At the same time, the typical prices will be inverted, Rumpsa says, with healthier foods the least expensive and less healthful foods more expensive to buy with points. The Food Club will stock everything from apples to cake mix, but Community Action House will subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthful options.

“Lots of other outcomes tied to healthy eating at home,” Rumpsa says. “It doesn’t end with what people take home. There are educational pathways.”

When people are struggling, they often aren’t just financially struggling. There are struggles of time and educational gaps, too, Rumpsa says. This would be the first food club model that is more than just food.

“Yes it starts with food but it doesn’t end there,” Rumpsa says.

The Hub

Many Community Action House programs are scattered at other sites around the city. This will consolidate many of those services at one flagship space. The Opportunity Hub will help guests learn how to build up their emergency savings, navigate child care and housing issues and build job skills.

“It’s on the back of that trust and those relationships that we can help people to address challenges, set goals and work toward greater autonomy,” Rumpsa says.

Money is not the only barrier to healthful eating. Time and cultural barriers also make it difficult for some families, Rumpsa says.

A volunteer chef at the Opportunity Hub’s on-site demonstration kitchen will teach customers how to cook everything from diabetes-friendly meals on a budget to healthful food for toddlers.

The Food Club will stock healthful, simple meal kits near the checkout that will help families learn new culinary skills and cook with foods they might not find familiar as well as ones from their native cultures such as Asian and Hispanic.

COVID

At the peak of the 2020 pandemic, when unemployment hit record-high rates, Community Action House provided healthy food to more than 14,000 people, 41% of whom were first-time guests. The organization projects that the Food Club will serve five times more individuals each month than their pantry at less than half the cost per meal.

“When we started planning, we didn’t know where we would be in 2020 as a community with so many people relying on us for the first time,” Rumpsa says.

Initially, the Food Club was going to be open at the beginning of 2021. Then — like many people and organizations — the COVID-19 pandemic made it necessary to change course. It was, in fact, serendipitous that plans didn’t move as quickly as originally hoped, Rumpsa says. Now the Food Club is a pandemic-planned building with features such as an advanced HVAC system to ensure guests and employees are breathing more fresh air.

The Food Club will run a membership campaign in August and September to build its customer base.

“There’s a higher expectation of our services (with this model), which is good, which is restorative,” Rumpsa says.

Community Action House wants the building to again be an inviting entrance into the Holland Heights neighborhood.

Two virtual information sessions will provide more details.

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.