Community Action House opens grocery-store-like Food Club4 min read
HOLLAND — Community Action House begins serving its clients with its new grocery store model Monday, Oct. 25.
The Food Club and Opportunity Hub at 739 Paw Paw Drive is also the organization’s new office space, with all of its services for those in need now gathered in one location — the former Yff’s Neighborhood Grocery, most recently owned by Semco.
Bright murals by local artist Joel Schoon-Tanis will greet the members at the food club, who will show their membership cards to shop in a “high-dignity” grocery store environment, paying for fresh produce, dairy, meat and store cupboard items with a monthly allotment of points.
Larger households get more points to spend, and the food club membership costs between $11 and $17 a month, dependent on income. Points provide enough for about one-third of the average household’s grocery needs.
AJ Fossel, executive director of the Community Food Club in Grand Rapids, which inspired and helped shape Community Action House’s Food Club, said members’ ability to choose is key to the food club model. Rather than waiting in line at a food pantry to take whatever is available that week, members choose the food they want to serve to their families. Like at a traditional grocery store, they pay for their food and can shop whenever is convenient for them, including weekends and evenings.
“When members are paying to participate, it really changes the relationship that we have,” Fossel said. “We move our members from clients to customers because they are participating financially in this. And it leads to a more dignified experience.”
What Community Action House found over the past several years was clients who were coming to them for food assistance weren’t destitute, but were more often working parents living on the edge of poverty or seniors on fixed incomes trying to make ends meet.
“It’s not that people have no money and need free food, it’s just that they can’t afford full price,” said Executive Director Scott Rumpsa. “They need a system that respects their time, their dignity and their choice, so that they can come in and be in and out in 15 minutes at a time of their choosing, and they can bring their children along, and they don’t feel stigmatized for using it.”
Community Action House already has more than 430 households signed up to be members, and they expect more than 1,000 households will soon be shopping at the food club — which would be about five times their pre-pandemic service levels. Outreach efforts have focused on the senior population and families with young kids.
O’Nealya Gronstal, director of the Lakeshore Food Club in Ludington, said her food club has seen its membership double in the last four months, with the biggest growth among senior citizens. She said those on fixed incomes are struggling with the rising costs of household goods.
“There’s no shame,” Gronstal said of the food club experience. “You would think you’re at any grocery store in America.”
Unlike a typical grocery store, though, Lakeshore Food Club can set its “prices” to incentivize healthy foods. Fresh produce, some of which is sourced from local farmers, cost the least amount of points to buy, and processed foods the most. Community Action House, too, is making its fresh produce the cheapest to buy and featuring it at the front of the grocery store.
Community Action House will source food for the food club in three primary ways: donations of excess and near-expiration food from big box grocery stores, buying food in bulk, and donations from outside organizations like churches.
CAH said the food club model allows it to be even more cost-efficient in providing food to members than it was with its food pantry.
“This is going to really expand healthy food access aligned with our community’s needs,” Rumpsa said. “This is a better way of offering service, as it’s been proven in Grand Rapids and in Ludington. And along with many in our lakeshore community, we’re excited to build a movement to make this happen here.”
Though the food pantry on 14th Street is closing its doors, CAH staff will still help people to apply for SNAP food assistance benefits, refer people to Holland’s other food pantries and will still provide emergency food to anyone if its needed.
The Food Club opens onto a lobby where shoppers can be connected with any of CAH’s other services, including financial wellness, MIBridges navigation and housing and home ownership help. A new teaching kitchen in the space will be used for cooking classes for members.
The Ottawa County Health Department will have a nurse’s room in the building, too, where health services can be offered such as flu shots. Herrick District Library will provide a mobile library service at the Food Club, and MAX Transit is expected to place a bus stop outside the building. Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates is a next door neighbor.
This “campus model’ is a first in West Michigan; the other two pioneering food clubs primarily refer their customers elsewhere for other needs.
A $4.4 million fundraising campaign funded the acquisition and renovations of the Paw Paw Drive building.
— Contact reporter Carolyn Muyskens at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cjmuyskens.