Businesses helping to feed West Michigan

November 20, 2011
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In 2010, Feeding America West Michigan distributed 24.7 million pounds of food to 1,300 local food pantries and shelters in 40 Michigan counties. That record-setting figure is an astonishing number for the organization that began 30 years ago as West Michigan Gleaners. Back in 1981 — the initial year for Gleaners — the local bank collected and distributed 167,000 pounds.

The remarkable growth the organization has experienced the last three decades has been both highly rewarding and often disappointing. It has been rewarding to have so many businesses and individuals help the food bank fill the needs of so many needy persons. But it has also been disappointing for the food bank to have so many people in need. Call it the yin and yang of the domain Feeding America West Michigan has chosen to pursue.

“On the good side, it’s good that we’re able to provide that much more food to organizations and ultimately the people who need it. It’s disappointing in the fact that we have such a growing need, especially in Michigan.

“Yes, we’re happy to be able to grow and support it and rescue more food and provide it in a value better than anything you can get from a store. You can get 10 times more food through a food bank than you can from a store,” said CEO Kenneth Estelle, from the organization’s headquarters in Comstock Park. “But the need is growing, and it is disappointing that we still have such a strong demand.”

Not too long ago, Gleaners became part of the Second Harvest organization, and Second Harvest evolved into Feeding America in 2009. The West Michigan food bank serves the western half of the state, along with the entire Upper Peninsula, through its 59 employees and seven warehouses in Houghton, Ishpeming, Sault Ste. Marie, Petoskey, Cadillac, Benton Harbor and Comstock Park.

As would be expected, the Comstock Park warehouse distributed more perishable goods than the six others combined: more than 17 million pounds to pantries and shelters in nine counties last year. Estelle said the organization is likely to match that number this year.

“There is some give and take, but overall we’re pretty close to 2010 numbers. I don’t think we’ll be greater than the 2010 numbers in terms of the pounds of food we distribute in 2011, but it’s very comparable,” he said.

About 100,000 families benefitted from the food Feeding America West Michigan delivered last year. Half of those had to choose between buying groceries and paying utility bills, and this week they’ll again have food on their Thanksgiving tables and heat in their homes.

Estelle said he and his staff are thankful to the area businesses that have come on board the donation bandwagon. Thirty-one companies gave the bank 13.3 million pounds of food last year, and hundreds more firms, organizations and individuals contributed another 11.6 million pounds.

“We’ve really tried to engage our business partners to participate in what we do, and, overall, I’ve seen a very good response from local businesses in terms of financial support, which is very, very important to our organization. But we’re also seeing a lot of companies encouraging their employees to volunteer. So we see groups from corporations coming to the food bank, and that’s very encouraging. We’re also seeing more food donations coming from food retailers and producers. This year we’ve added two or maybe three new farms that we’ve gleaned this year for the first time,” said Estelle.

“We’ve also added a few new food donors who have come on board in significant ways. I’ve been very encouraged by the financial participation, by the volunteer participation, and by some of our food distributors and retailers that are stepping up and donating surplus food that hadn’t done so, or have increased their donations over what they had been doing,” he added.

Estelle became CEO in April after working 32 years in the aerospace and defense industry. He spent a decade of that time at Smiths Aerospace, now GE Aviation Systems. Both he and his wife are from West Michigan; they became personally involved in the hunger fight by handing out food baskets to needy local families through their church.

“That’s how I really got hooked — seeing the need and face of hunger first hand,” he said.

Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent evaluator of charities, has given Feeding America West Michigan its top mark, a four-star rating. Last year, the food bank had expenses of $41.6 million, and total revenue and public support of $42 million. Of that latter figure, 6 percent, or $2.5 million, came from financial contributions. Where that number will go next year isn’t certain, as the state income-tax credit for giving money to food banks and shelters will go away Jan. 1.

“We’re concerned about it, obviously. In terms of what I think that will do, I don’t know, to be quite honest. I know most of the people who donate to our organization do so because they believe in the cause that we are part of, in terms of fighting hunger. I believe there probably are people that the amount they donate has been impacted by having the opportunity for this tax credit,” said Estelle.

“To what degree is kind of hard to say. I know that it won’t be a positive impact to the food bank,” he added. “But people have told us that the tax credit isn’t why they donate. At the same time, I’m thinking how much they donate might be affected because they get half of it back on their tax bill and they donate more than they normally would. We see it as a challenge.”

One way people can donate through Dec. 1 is to order a holiday gift notice, where a donation is made in another’s name and the donor receives a notice from the food bank and then can give it as a gift to the person named. Linda Vanderbaan has more information on how to arrange a gift at 784-3250 or at lindav@feedingamericawestmichigan.org

“I think we have a strong and very loyal supporting base, and I’m confident those folks are going to step up,” said Estelle. “They understand how important it is to fight hunger in our area.”

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