Hard times are forcing some hard choices. People with low income struggle to pay for food, housing and heat.
Food pantries are taking up some of the slack. But pantry items typically are processed foods with little nutritional value. And obesity continues to be a growing problem.
Community Kitchen in Manistee County is trying to address those issues.
Something Different at the Pantry
At ten o'clock on a Tuesday morning and people are gathering for the monthly food pantry at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Kaleva.
A couple of church volunteers are filling smaller plastic bags with potatoes dumped from a burlap sack. Potatoes and fresh kale from a local garden are the main ingredients in a soup being ladled out by Brandon Seng. He also offers a printed recipe to anyone who's interested.
"Today here at the pantry about half the folks said I've never had kale before," says Seng. "So by providing them with a recipe and some ideas for cooking it for their family it's a low-risk opportunity for them to try it at home. They didn't have to buy it."
Seng is a founder of the Manistee Community Kitchen. It's helping people take the first few steps toward eating healthier.
Volunteers collect surplus from farm fields and gardens that otherwise would go to waste. In this first year, they distributed more than 10,000 pounds of produce. And Seng says there was a lot more food out there but not enough hands to gather it.
What does come to the pantry is appreciated by people like this woman who's loading items into the trunk of her car.
"The fresh fruits and vegetables I really like because they're expensive to buy," she says. "I got apples, carrots, chicken. Everything that I can make stuff with." She says this will feed her family of six for about a week.
But today the Kaleva Pantry runs out of food. Last time, Brandon Seng says, nineteen families showed up. This time it's forty-nine. "It's just scary how fast the need is growing," he says.
The Community Kitchen serves seven pantries in Manistee County.
But it's also taking cooking classes on the road to community centers in various towns. Brandon Seng says the Cooking Matters classes aren't so much about learning new skills from scratch as about re-learning.
"If we put down a zucchini and an eggplant next to a loaf of white bread for a low income family in our community they're going to pick up the white bread because they know what to do with it," he says. "They're not sure anymore what they can do with that zucchini and what they can do with that eggplant. So our organization is about retraining and helping families remember."
Seng takes off in the Northwest Michigan Food Rescue truck with the fresh veggies painted on its side. He's going to pick up supplies for an afternoon class.
Al Frye is a chef who was in business in the Washington, D.C. area for 35 years. He's teaming up with Brandon to teach some of the Cooking Matters classes. "Our basic goal is to reduce obesity and hunger in Manistee County," Frye says. And he says there's nothing mystical about eating healthier.
"I always say we're fighting the $1 cheeseburger. But we can show people how they can feed a family of four for about the same amount of money," Frye says. "And a healthy whole food meal."
Putting Food By
Today's menu features green tomatoes. The Calvin Lutz Farm donates a few bushels that probably would have ended up on the ground.
About a dozen people plus several volunteers gather in a borrowed kitchen at the back of the Manistee Civic Center. They're chopping veggies and dicing them in a food mill for green tomato relish.
The idea is to make something that can be canned or frozen. Eventually the Kitchen wants to put by enough to supply the pantries during the winter.
Laura Durtche lives in Wellston. She and her husband have little income coming in. They started a garden a few years ago. This year Laura planted extra rows so she could give some back to the food pantries.
And now she's learning through the classes to put some food by. "I put up a freezer full of food and I canned a lot of food this year," Durtche says. "I did pickles for the first time, spaghetti sauce for the first time, ketchup. I did all of it."
Next year she plans to triple the size of her garden.
Brandon Seng moved back to his hometown after getting a degree and spending five years in Grand Rapids helping not-for-profit organizations. The motivation to start his own non-profit Community Kitchen was staring him right in the face.
He points to a recent survey that found 80% of Manistee County residents don't eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables. And he worries about a trend towards obesity in school kids.
"I don't want to see a school system where half of our kids are overweight. That's just not an environment that's conducive to success," Seng says. "I mean talk about a national security risk. It's just something that we need to change. And we decided this is a place where we can put our shoulder to the wheel and make a little change."