95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Grand Rapids community-based food equity nonprofit Kids' Food Basket expanding in Muskegon County

kids food basket

Two-thirds of Muskegon County school children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches based on household income in the 2022-2023 school year. KFB has been serving Muskegon County students for more than a decade. Now, it’s expanding there. WGVU spoke with Bridget Clark Whitney, President and Founding CEO.

Bridget Clark Whitney: The County of Muskegon has really been hit hard by the pandemic and certainly by economic issues over the past 15 years, but also during the pandemic itself, Muskegon Heights Public Schools, for example, were virtual for almost two years. And there just is a real tremendous need there. Muskegon Heights as a community, the entire Muskegon Heights is a food desert, meaning that there's no walkable fresh fruits and vegetables. And so, it's a really, really tremendous need in that county. To go backwards, the story of Muskegon, we expanded, and Muskegon County was the first county outside of Kent County that we expanded into. And we expanded into Muskegon right after the recession. And so, it was 2012 when we expanded into Muskegon County, and it was because we had a reputation, we had created a reputation in Kent County of making a big impact, of being very trustworthy, showing up every day with healthy, nourishing food. Food access for children in schools all around Kent County. And we had teachers, we had principals, we had superintendents, families, parents calling and asking us if we would expand into Muskegon. And when we looked at the data and really did a deep dive into the needs that exist in Muskegon County, we knew that we could make a big impact. And so, served our first meals in Muskegon County in 2012, and we've been serving in Muskegon County now for 11 years. And it's been an extraordinary community. They've been so supportive of Kids Food Basket, have been really just wrapped their arms around the mission, created an engine of volunteerism in Muskegon. We've been very grateful. to have that support from the Muskegon community. Well, during the pandemic, there was a huge increase in need during the pandemic. And Kids Food Basket was being asked and called upon to respond to food security needs in more and different ways than the past. A lot more food security needs for families, a lot more targeted neighborhood food security needs. And then schools, of course, asking for Kids Food Basket’s both SAC supper program, as well as our nutrition education program and our agriculture program, our growing program, to be in our Muskegon schools. And what we found is that the impact there that we're able to make was really widespread and the impact was deep. We were meeting an immediate need today, but also planting seeds for a sustainable future where kids were empowered around their healthy food, where kids were excited and enthusiastic, not only around eating healthy food, but also about growing healthy food, growing healthy food in their own backyards. And so, for the past 11 years, Kids Food Basket Muskegon has operated out of a church basement. We were at Central United Methodist in the middle of Muskegon City, and just really fantastic. Like loved being there, it was great, but unfortunately, both we grew out of the church and the church was no longer able to host us there. And so, we've been in a temporary location at Aldea Coffee Roasters. So, it smells fantastic, but it is a temporary location. We've been there for about six months now. And ultimately, we need a permanent location in Muskegon County if we're going to continue to be able to make the kind of impact that we've been able to make over the last 11 years in Muskegon. And if we're able to continue to grow, we right now have 11 schools that are still on our waiting list in Muskegon County. And so, there's a real critical need to grow there as well. And so, we have launched the Muskegon Feeding Our Future campaign. And the goal of the campaign is to really rally our West Michigan community around Muskegon County so that we can get the resources needed to create a permanent location for Kids Food Basket’s programming. Both our daily food access programming, as well as our nutrition education programming, our agricultural programming, and our community engagement programming. Last year, Kids Food Basket did nine community listening sessions where we welcomed community members from all over Muskegon, specifically held them in Muskegon Heights, and welcomed community members, teachers, parents, families, concerned neighbors to join us at these listening sessions and help us understand what are the barriers to food security and how can Kids Food Basket expand to better serve the community to ensure that everyone has the access to good food that they need. And what we found was three themes really bubble up. Three themes came into play and one was that financial resources. Healthy nourishing food continues to increase in cost while processed manufactured food continues to decrease. And there's the injustice of it, right? Because families who are resource scarce, simply don't have the resources, the financial resources that they need to be able to purchase the healthy food that our brains and our bodies are designed to eat. So unfortunately, families who are resource scarce, what they have access to is often just manufactured and processed food, which can lead to a whole host of health issues. So, we heard that really loud and clear from the Muskegon community, that financial resources are a huge barrier to obtaining healthy food. Secondly, education. Families wanted more education. What do I do with this healthy food? Once we grow this healthy food, how do we turn it into meals? Also, how do we take $20 and stretch that $20 with healthy fresh fruits and vegetables to make meals for our families? And thirdly, we did hear that transportation continues to be an issue for many families who are living in resource scarce neighborhoods. Again, Muskegon Heights itself is a food desert, so no walkable fresh fruits and vegetables. And so, hearing all of these themes and hearing from our Muskegon community that they wanted Kids Food Basket to have a permanent location. They wanted Kids Food Basket to create a space and a place where people could gather around healthy food access and people can gather around healthy food education. It was clear to Kids Food Basket that the way that we best serve the West Michigan community was through the Muskegon Feeding Our Future campaign. We have publicly launched the Feeding Our Future campaign in Muskegon. And we are asking our West Michigan community to rally around Muskegon so that everyone can have access to the good food that they need. We know that healthy nourishing food is the very foundation of good health and good health is the foundation of a good future. All of our children, all of our families, all of our neighbors deserve healthy good food so that we can all thrive together as a West Michigan community.

Patrick Center: There's a new location that's going to be the hub, the spoke that will make all of this work and it's contingent upon approval of state house bill 4861-2023. Of course, this is where we get into the technicalities of it all, but this is the spark. This is what's going to launch this.

Bridget Clark Whitney: And we are super grateful to Representative Will Snyder for taking up that bill for us. And so, Kids Food Basket would be able to purchase 97 East Apple Avenue, which is a former Muskegon County Health Department building. This building is right in the middle of the city, right in the middle of the county, and would allow us to expand our services to serve Muskegon County in a permanent location. There's also a one acre garden plot so we could have our nutrition education and outdoor agricultural lessons happening right there on site which is really important and again a place where community can gather around healthy food access and healthy food education and that's what the community has asked Kids Food Basket to do. So, this is a really exciting time for us. Again, we're super grateful to Representative Snyder for sponsoring this and being such a great supporter of Kids Food Basket so that we can have this expansion. And we're also grateful to the Muskegon community rallying around this mission, nourishing our children so that they can be their best both in school and in life. And really grateful to the Muskegon donors who have already stood up in the Muskegon companies to support this campaign. And now we are asking our entire community to be a part of this campaign so that we can make a stronger, healthier West Michigan for all.

Patrick Center: The property at 97 East Apple Avenue is expected to close this year. Do you have an estimated timeframe? And then once it does close, what happens next?

Bridget Clark Whitney: We are very hopeful to begin renovations on the building, which needs a brand new roof. Very hopeful to begin those renovations after the beginning of the year. But again, we certainly need the community here in West Michigan to support this. Muskegon is a community that has just been hit really hard, both by the recession as well as the pandemic. And our children in Muskegon really need the support of the West Michigan community. So, hoping that we'll be able to start those renovations after the first of the year and be able to move in still in 2024.

Patrick Center: 16,000 children in Muskegon County live at or near the poverty line.

Bridget Clark Whitney: Yes, that's correct. Over 16,000. You know, here in Michigan alone, 552,000 children are experiencing food insecurity. That's an outrageous number, right? And in a state with such abundance, it's not right. And we can do something about that. Here in West Michigan, we're a community of very generous people. And we're currently serving about 1,900 meals a day in Muskegon. However, there's still a great need for support. And so, uh, we're really hoping that both the Muskegon Feeding Our Future Campaign, as well as a permanent location for Kids Food Basket, would help us scale and be able to serve more children and families in Muskegon.

Patrick Center: It's a beautiful mission. You've been at it for 21 years. Kudos to you, Bridget Clark, Whitney President and founding CEO of Kids Food Basket. Thank you so much.

Bridget Clark Whitney: Thanks, Patrick. We really appreciate the support. Thanks for having us on today.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.