ARPA funding bolsters Ottawa Food’s efforts to rescue food for pantries

More than 34,000 pounds of food was rescued from the Holland and Grand Haven Farmers Markets and donated to local food pantries the summer of 2022, thanks to efforts by Ottawa Food and Community Action House. That astounding number gave local residents the ability to choose food from local food banks that was much more than just someone’s old can of vegetables that had been sitting in their cupboard for over a year.

“It’s really beautiful to see that there’s 34,000 pounds of local bread and produce in local pantries, because that means a lot to people who need to utilize those,” says Health Educator and Coordinator of Ottawa Food Sierra Schuetz. “What’s also amazing is that those 34,000 pounds of food were gleaned in just the summer months of 2022 from both the Holland and Grand Haven farmers markets.”

Employees from Community Action House visited those farmers markets at the end of the day on Saturday to ask if the farmers had anything that they didn’t want to take back with them. If they donated food, they received a tax write-off at the end of the year based on the number of pounds they donated.

This is just the beginning of a bigger goal that is being realized thanks to a county-wide initiative that has created a contract with Community Action House.

Now, Ottawa Food has even more ambitious plans thanks to funding from thevAmerican Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) issued through Ottawa County.

If you aren’t familiar with Ottawa Food, it’s a collaboration of more than 45 different agencies and individuals in Ottawa County that are collectively striving to eliminate hunger, encourage healthy eating, and support local farmers. Ottawa Food is housed within the Health Promotion team at the Public Health Department and was started in 2008 when many families in Ottawa County found themselves needing food stamps.

Every three years, Ottawa Food members and their partners meet to develop a strategic plan, and they receive approximately $8,000 annually from Ottawa County to carry out that strategic plan, in addition to donations and grants.

“Our members range from food advocates, food pantry staff, social worker, dieticians, farmers, school staff, and many more,” explains Schuetz. “What is unique about Ottawa Food is that people from different organizations come together as Ottawa Food to address food insecurity and poor healthy. We are a hyper localized group that is open to all.”

What many people don’t realize is that food insecurity is real and local, despite what Ottawa County may appear to be on the outside.

Here are a few of the statistics regarding food insecurity, health, and more:
  • 25,130 food insecure Ottawa County residents
  • 4,950 food insecure children in Ottawa County
  • Cost remains the top barrier to eating healthy
  • 25% of Ottawa County residents are in the ALICE population
  • 8 in 10 adults do not consume the recommended number of fruits and veggies each day
  • 66.4% of OC adults are overweight or obese

Ottawa Food continues to focus on these numbers, and they are unveiling big moves over the next three years, thanks to approximately $486,675 in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

“We applied for the ARPA funding to create county-wide infrastructure to rescue the food that is being pulled from shelves in grocery stores or is unused in restaurants and get it to families that need it or compost it to create beneficial soil for our community,” says Schuetz. “We applied in the ‘county bucket’ because food rescue will benefit those in need in our community, and the whole county benefits from diverting waste and reducing CO2 emissions. We believe that these funds will illustrate that there are localized solutions to health and hunger, and that by building county infrastructure around food rescue we can become a closer and more supportive community.”

This process was something that Ottawa County took very seriously. The county and the ARPA committees sent out virtual surveys to organizations and community members asking what they thought the money needed to be allocated toward within the community. Ottawa County broke down the results and created buckets based on the priority areas determined by the community responses. From there, they created committees to research, plan, and write grant proposals to propose to the Board of Commissioners.

The $486,675 in funds that Ottawa Food received will be used to purchase two new food rescue vehicles, fund three full-time staff positions, purchase food storage equipment (i.e., refrigerators) for our partners, and purchase the Food Hero app, which will allow volunteers across the county to be a part of the food rescue work.

The Food Hero app is something that was piloted in Virginia and proved successful at pairing volunteers with community businesses and nonprofits that needed help transporting donated food and materials. Primarily grocery stores will be utilized for food rescue, along with some restaurants.

“The app is kind of a like an Uber or Grubhub for volunteers,” explains Schuetz. “The app will ping that a bakery has bread to donate, and a volunteer can hop on the app and say, ‘Oh hey, I’m nearby, I’ll pick it up.’ The app will also display where that bread can go so the volunteer can do the pick-up and drop-off. We’re excited about this because we have so many awesome volunteers already helping us, and this will be a great option for those who want to volunteer but may have some physical/lifting restrictions. I think it’s going to create great new relationships within the community.”

Ottawa Food’s programs are available to a variety of community members, including:
  • Families utilizing food pantries
  • Farmers who participate in our programs
  • Low-income seniors who participate in our programs
  • Migrant farmworkers
  • All residents who interact with our Real Food Can healthy eating campaign
  • Children during the summer
  • Immigrants and migrants who participate in our programs

“Ottawa Food is passionate about getting healthy food into food pantries and into other access points for families experiencing hunger and/or poor health,” says Schuetz.

If you need to utilize Ottawa Food’s programs, visit their website to ask for a brochure or use the Find Food database to locate a food pantry near you.

If you would like to work or volunteer with Ottawa Food, contact Schuetz at sschuetz@miottawa.org.

Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.