GR-based nonprofit aims to fight hunger with Lakeshore expansion

One key to proper nourishment of the human body is consuming fresh vegetables and fruit. But many food insecure individuals lack access.

A bag containing healthy foods – raisins, nuts, whole grains, cheese, and packaged fruit – shows up in the backpack of Kids’ Food Basket recipients before they head home from school. But often missing is a fresh vegetable or fruit.

What might change if students had a better understanding of nutrition, received one or more servings of fresh produce daily and potentially had a hand in growing that produce? A lot, according to Afton DeVos, Kids’ Food Basket chief operating officer. 

“We have found that when we paired educational programming with critical access programming, that’s when we can really move the needle on nutrition and wellness,” DeVos says. 

In Kent County, Kids’ Food Basket has embraced a hands-on approach to learning by bringing back into production a once-working farm on the corner of Plymouth and Leonard. After 20 years of dormancy, the farm has flourished under the management of a contract farmer to grow 8 acres of fresh produce including kid-tested and approved cherry tomatoes, string beans, sugar snap peas, berries, and melons. Part of the crop is served through Kids’ Food Basket signature Sack Suppers.

The Kids' Food Basket team includes (left) Austin Roelofs, director of program operations and Julie Vangessel, director of community engagement. Photograph by Bev Berens.Another portion is donated to agencies and pantries that have little or no access to fresh foods, including St. Alphonsus Food Pantry, Community Food Club, and Feeding America. Lastly, a portion is sold, creating an income stream that contributes to program sustainability.

“The Kent County pilot farm is so successful, the children are enthusiastic about it, and the schools are enthusiastic about what kids are learning and how it is changing the fabric of their food choices,” DeVos says. Seventy percent of schools participating in the program provide help and volunteers for the farm or are involved in taste-testing products grown on the farm.

She added that the organization’s next task is to define what a lakeshore farm could look like, how it would contribute to the overall program and community, and how it would intersect with current programming at the Kent County farm. 

The plan is to continue to build community partnerships that will support the project through connections with Michigan State University Extension, Grand Valley State University, 4-Hand FFA, and local food policy organizations.

A portion of the funds raised through the organization’s Feeding our Future Campaign for Allegan and Ottawa counties will go toward the purchase of land to create a farm where even more fresh crops could be raised for the community.

DeVos says the campaign will give Kids’ Food Basket the flexibility to purchase land when the right space becomes available. In the meantime, the focus is on quickly getting the new Holland facility up and running.

“We are committed to expanding our rural and urban agricultural movement in West Michigan,” DeVos says. 

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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Read more articles by Bev Berens.