“This looks like a regular grocery store!”
The all-volunteer staff at The Bridge Food Center
say they hear that comment, or similar, frequently -- especially from new shoppers. It is also, they believe, a validation of the service being offered, according to Marsha Stamas, one of three co-managers.
And what they are doing is offering clients the dignity to have a choice in what they choose, virtually all name brands, and to pay for their groceries at significant savings. The Bridge sells food at its cost with a $.05 mark up on each item to cover charges for debit and credit card processing. Any food that is donated to the Bridge is free for clients, and in interesting ways (more about this later).
The store is located at 1539 Washington St., in the Midland Towne Center, between a florist shop and a nail salon.
Marsha Stamas and Joyce Battjes are two of the co-managers at The Bridge.
The savings are huge. Pre-pandemic, Stamas and her crew chose 15 popular items, including bread and produce, from the Center’s shelves and compared prices for the same item at Meijer and Kroger.
The Bridge price was $22.36 compared to $50.05 at Kroger and $50.15 at Meijer. The Bridge’s basket also included three, free bonus items (see below), but still the savings were significant. Stamas said the relative price difference would likely be the same now. Of course, she notes, Meijer and Kroger bear costs the Bridge does not – namely, labor and marketing.
The approach is working. Bridge records show about a 31% jump in customer visits from Dec. 31, 2019, to Feb. 14, 2022, with the largest increase being among seniors – 42.3%.
The Bridge Ministry
The road to creating The Bridge came together in 2016. Like other communities of faith, Messiah
(a member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) was looking for ways to better serve the community. Messiah, located on S. Poseyville Road, south of Midland, had sponsored food pantries on a regular basis.
One outcome was Messiah’s creation of what it calls Community Ministries, explaining on its website:
“We foster a family of independent, auxiliary ministries that are Christ-centered and community focused. These organizations share a common goal of providing affordable and accessible products and services that strengthen our community.”
Messiah established six community ministries: one being The Bridge. Others include an appliance store and vehicle repair shop.
Clearly marked prices.Items are sold at cost plus a nickel.
Stamas recalls the start-up challenges in December 2016, “We used to do food giveaways. We asked people what they felt about the food pantry experience. They disliked the loss of personal dignity and the lack of choice. Choice was an issue because of food allergies,” Stamas says, noting that many felt pantry choices did not work well with the meals they wanted for their families.
Stamas and her team got to work, “We raised $75,000 up front to purchase 50 pallets of food, to start. These donations were from families that saw the need.” Shelves for the goods would come later, so the shop opened its doors with the food piled on how it arrived – on pallets.
Operating funds, Stamas says, continue to come from golf outings, the Midland 100 Club
, The Big Give of Midland County
as well as individuals and other organizations and businesses.
“It truly is a community supported ministry,” she says. “It’s God’s math – not ours’.”
The Store's Operations
Today, pallets can be found in the back, loaded with products yet to be shelved. More is stored off-site at a 1,500-square foot facility. The back area also houses large coolers and freezers.
For ordering, Stamas relies on about eight suppliers. Some deliver and some require goods to be picked up from their facility. Hidden Harvest
delivers twice weekly. Hidden Harvest is another non-profit organization. Their mission is to rescue surplus food and redistribute it to people in need.
Fresh meat is bought in bulk and arrives weekly – 80-20 blend ground beef, pork chops, chicken breasts, thighs and whole, New York strip steaks and more. Volunteers package, seal, label, price, and freeze the products.
And just like Meijer, Kroger, and other big-name grocers, the pandemic has brought shortages. Presently, SunnyD, Gold Medal flour, Mueller egg noodles and mandarin oranges are not available, Stamas explains.
The Bridge buys meat in bulk, prepares it for sale, including labeling.
First-time shoppers are asked to provide their name, city of residence, e-mail (or phone number) and number of people in their household by age (under 18, over 65 and everyone else).
Stamas says newcomers are told the store is meant to serve households with annual incomes of less than $64,000. Responses are not challenged. A key tag is then provided and scanned on future visits – thus providing the Center with data to better plan and measure its work.
Donated groceries are typically offered in the store’s Bonus Section, says Joyce Battjes, also a co-manager. The selection also features familiar brands and often changes by the day, depending on customer traffic and spending. This section may also include food items approaching “use by” dates. Customers choose one free item from this section for every $10 they spend on store items, up to four free items, each of which has a retail value of about $2 to $4.
Physically, the store is about as big as a medium-sized restaurant. It has 15 shopping carts and numerous baskets. Chances are that a visitor will see more volunteers working at any one time than shoppers.
It is from the shoppers that Battjes draws her energy and commitment.
“I often walk in frustrated by some little thing in my life,” she says “but my mood goes up instantly when I see the people coming in and able to get what they want for their families and the smiles on their faces.
In all, the Center draws on skills, smiles, patience, and the time of about 40 volunteers; fewer during the winter when some go south to escape cold weather.
Catalyst Midland visited one weekday when volunteers Jordan Rawling and Brady Kish were working. Kish is a high school junior and Rawling, a senior. Why volunteer there?
The store is located at 1539 Washington St., in the Midland Towne Center.
“I love seeing the faces of so many smiling faces,” Rawling says. And for Kish, “it helps me work on my people skills and socialization. My mom thought it would be good for me. And it is,” he offers.
Robin Bott teaches math and language arts at Northeast Middle School. She is also a co-manager and began volunteering at the Center soon after it opened. Back then, Andrew, her son who's a sophomore, needed community volunteer experience, so Robin looked to Facebook and settled on the Bridge for Andrew – and herself, "I love my 9 to 5 job as well, but something is joyful at The Bridge. I leave my Saturday shift even more happy and energized than when I went in."
“It’s people’s dignity. They work hard, have families and it’s frustrating when you do all the right things and you don’t have enough money to make ends meet. This lifts the burden, the weight is lifted -- once they learn they can shop at a place like The Bridge,” she says.
Store hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 6 p.m., Thursday, noon to 7 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The store is closed Friday and Sunday. Parking is plentiful and volunteers will help carry and load groceries. Phone is (989) 444-8000. More information can be found at: www.thebridgemidland.com