County Seat Newspaper
of Clare County

Clare County Food Group Receives Hunger Action Partner Award

Feeding Clare County

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By MEGAN BARRON

Cleaver Guest Writer

HARRISONCars can be seen lining up as early as 3 a.m. on the first Saturday of each month at either the Clare County Fairgrounds or the Clare County Transit Corp. to participate in the mobile food distributions hosted interchangeably at these sites.

Clare County hosts the highest rate of food insecurity in the state, with a rate of over 20%. With the heart wrenching reality that 1-in-5 people struggle to figure out where their next meal will come from, a group of three retirees has stepped up with unparalleled compassion and dedication to move mountains for countless families and individuals.

With some recent restructuring, the risk of losing the mobile food distribution events in Clare County became a looming concern. Wanting to ensure these valuable food services were able to continue for the community, Jeri Harm, Debbie Mason and Bonnie Smalley graciously banded together at the beginning of 2023, stepping up to form and oversee administrative duties as the Clare County Food Group (CCFG). CCFG is a partner and extension of Greater Lansing Food Bank (GLFB), working as their boots on the ground to combat hunger in Clare County.

GLFB has been in operation for 43 years and is one of seven food banks in the state of Michigan. It is a warehouse distribution center dispersing millions of pounds of food for food pantries and mobile distribution centers throughout seven counties in mid-Michigan (Clare, Clinton, Eaton, Gratiot, Ingham, Isabella and Shiawassee).

“GLFB was wonderful in teaching and assisting us in what was needed from them to be successful,” Smalley said, as she shared many superlatives regarding GLFB’s guidance and partnership in their endeavors as they took over the organization of these events.

Harm has been working with GLFB since 2018 and works as the primary liaison handling the monthly food list from GLFB. A semi and large box truck arrives each month from GLFB to deliver the food the day of the mobile distribution, including refrigerated foods along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Harm coordinates getting all this food unloaded and assembled for families. Mason took on the role of volunteer coordinator, and Smalley oversees registration and marketing for the group.

“I didn’t know these two ladies really at all, but we have come to know each other a whole lot more and they are fantastic to work with,” Harm said. “We each have our strengths, and they just shine.”

“We let each other have their own strength, and let them stay in their own lane,” Smalley notes regarding the success they have come to find in organizing these monthly food distribution events as a team.

The success of these events became overwhelmingly evident as the numbers and statistics rolled in. The number of families served has more than doubled since 2021, increasing from a monthly average of 204 families to an average of 416 families per month in 2023. Currently, they have been able to provide food for an average of 424 families per month within the first quarter of 2024.

This substantial growth did not go unnoticed, and CCFG was selected by GLFB out of hundreds of partners for its Hunger Action Partner Award. This is an annual award recognizing exceptional partners going above and beyond in their work to fight against food insecurity.

On April 10, Harm, Mason and Smalley attended the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s 2024 Hunger Solutions Reception at Grewal Hall in Lansing and accepted the award on behalf of CCFG. The award ceremony is an annual, statewide celebration recognizing one partner nominated by each of the seven food banks within Michigan.

“This came as a surprise to all of us,” Smalley said. “To be recognized for doing something you love is wonderful. I may have the greatest interaction with the people receiving food of the three of us and I have to say that the people are always appreciative that we are a resource for them. I go home from each distribution tired, but with a happy heart that we were able to make a difference for these families. If only one family doesn't go to bed hungry or is able to pay a bill because they have the food they need for a few weeks, we have made a difference in someone's life.”

The heart and passion of these three women unwaveringly shone through as they spoke about their work and devotion to the people they serve here in Clare County.

“One story that sticks in my heart is back when we still had the bus, and I was calling the people who had signed up for it each month to get them registered,” Harm said. “One woman that I talked to just said she was so grateful she was finally getting food tomorrow, because she went into her closet and only had one can of food left. And that was all she had in her house.” Harm shared that heartrending story with tears in her eyes emphasizing the need for and importance of the work CCFG does each month.

Passion and sentiment for Clare County and its incredible residents lit up in their eyes as they shared some incredibly profound narratives from their years of service.

“This was last June, maybe July – we only had 13 volunteers show up,” Mason shared. “And we need 30. And the reason we only had 13 is because it was pouring rain. And it was outside at the fairgrounds. And it was just steady rain all day. So we had 13 – bless their hearts we had the 13 that we had – but that wasn’t enough. But we went ahead and started, and Bonnie and another volunteer were great about letting people know the situation and asking for their patience, letting them know we are doing the best we can. So, we had I want to say four, maybe six, people that were in line to get food park their cars, get out of line for food, and come and join us and volunteer. And some of them knew, you know, we may run out of food before they could get back in line. And they still stayed.” Mason recounted the staunch and special heart that holds true within the Clare County community.

While these three women take charge of the organization and its administrative duties, they were sure to emphasize that they accepted this award on behalf of all the volunteers who work with CCFG at these mobile food distribution events.

“We appreciate all our volunteers, because without them our distribution would not occur,” Smalley noted. “We are encouraging agencies, businesses and families to become our volunteer organization or family of the month. If an agency, business, or family is interested we ask that they contact us via email or Facebook Messenger to let us know what month they would like to volunteer. This year we have welcomed Chartwells, Harrison Community Schools National Honor Society, and Harrison Stingers of Steel Robotics team as volunteers.” Smalley shared these details with overflowing gratitude.

“They’re wonderful volunteers,” Mason said. “Our volunteer sherriff’s deputies are just fabulous. John Wilson, the Clare County Sheriff, gives up his first Saturday morning of each month with his tractor to help us move food. Scott Darling: I know he has given up jobs to come up help us unload the food trucks with his tractor as well. We are well represented by some schoolteachers. A retired CMU faculty member. A gentleman from the veteran’s services that comes pretty regularly. People of all walks of life. And so many more.

“And It’s those people and their stories that make it possible for us to do what we do – so, when we accepted that award in Lansing, we accepted it for that whole entire group,” Mason said humbly.

The mobile distribution events take place at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of each month (unless it is a holiday, then it is pushed back to the second Saturday) and CCFG welcomes community members who have an interest in volunteering.

“It takes approximately 30 volunteers to run the distribution smoothly, and since we do not require pre-registration to volunteer, we cross our fingers every month,” Smalley said. “To volunteer is easy. Simply come to the distribution site at 9:15 a.m. the day of the distribution, locate the volunteer registration table, and let us know you are there to help. Dress for the weather and wear comfortable, closed toe shoes. We do ask that volunteers be at least 14 years of age. Volunteers re-pack the food from the pallets into the amounts per family, so some lifting, turning, and carrying is required.”

While they do hope to continue to grow in their volunteer numbers, they were absolutely spilling over in gratitude for the regulars they have come to know over the years.

“We have some teenagers who come every month, and it’s just so fantastic to see those kids, because they’re the future, and they’re going to be us someday,” Harm said. “And we need those people to step up and lead it.”

Harm beamed at all the wonderful prospects for CCFG’s future.

“And they are going to be the people,” Mason added, with a smile that brightened the room as she spoke. “It’s already instilled in them how important this is, and how important volunteering is. They see the direct benefit of doing it. I know that they will be us someday. And I love working with the kids, they’re so inspiring.”

Upcoming mobile food distribution events will be held at the Clare County Fairgrounds on July 13 (second Saturday due to the July 4 holiday), Aug. 3, and Sept. 7; and at Clare County Transit on Oct. 5, Nov. 2, and Dec 7. It is not required to reside in Clare County to attend.

CCFG, along with GLFB CEO Michelle Lantz, encourage anyone who may be struggling or in need of food to reach out and take advantage of these services. It is not necessary to reside in the county of an existing food pantry or mobile distribution site to qualify for food. Anyone in need is welcome to visit any location most comfortable and convenient to them. They also reiterated that friends, family or neighbors are also welcome to pick up food on behalf of families or individuals in need.

“We want people to know this is why these resources are available,” Lantz said. “It’s for them. It could be for any of us – at any point in our lives, we could be food insecure. In many cases It’s not something people did to themselves; it is something that has happened to them. We want to make sure people understand that they can use the resources. And as hard as it sometimes is to make that first effort, it’s important. Because if you’re hungry, as our state executive director likes to say, you have one problem. And you can’t do anything else because there’s that toxic stress that comes along with being hungry, and that’s the only thing you can focus on. So, you are not going to be able to go out and find a new job. Or, if you’re a child, you’re not going to be able to learn at school. You’re going to fall behind. So, it’s critically important that people have the nutrition that they need.

“And that’s why we all exist,” Lantz said passionately, with underlying reassurance.

CCFG is a powerhouse of heart and service with these remarkable women leading the way, and they are not done yet. Their wish list for the future includes a covered structure for the mobile distributions, and are hoping for one located at the fairgrounds so they can have protection from the weather. Harm shared memories of the rain during their events last summer, recollecting that each time she passed by Smalley’s husband he was wringing his shirt out like a wet towel. The cardboard and the food were all wet, and the registration numbers that had been dutifully written on the cars with chalk paint had all washed off. She also rather vividly remembered dumping water out of her shoes before getting into her car at the end of the day, noting with gratitude that, “at least it was a warm rain.”

So, they have their sights set on working with GLFB to collect donations and set up future fundraising events to do all they can to turn that wish list item into a reality. The building would ideally have a cement floor with room for the two lines of autos, pallets of food, tables, and of course the volunteers, along with a restroom.

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