Organizers say a food club in BH would help residents have access to healthier food

Pattijean McCahill, development director for Feeding America West Michigan, talks Thursday about how a community food club would help people in poverty have access to healthier foods, which would reduce their health care costs.

BENTON HARBOR — An innovative way of helping people in poverty afford to eat fresher, healthier food may be on its way to Benton Harbor.

Bringing a nonprofit community food club that would look and act like a small grocery store was discussed Thursday at a town hall meeting put on by representatives from Feeding America West Michigan in Grand Rapids.

Benton Harbor would be the third location in Michigan using this model, said Pattijean McCahill, development director for Feeding America West Michigan.

The Community Food Club opened in Grand Rapids almost four years ago, and the Lakeshore Food Club opened in Ludington a little over a year ago.

McCahill said families have to be below 200 percent of the poverty line to qualify. In exchange for a $10 membership, families are given points based on their family size, which they use to shop at the club just like at a regular grocery store. Beyond the membership fee, everything else is free, she said.

To encourage families to eat healthier, fresh food would cost fewer points than packaged foods.

She said this is different from traditional food pantries, which may be open only one day a week, have a limited selection of food and have little to no fresh food, eggs and milk. She said the proposal is to have Benton Harbor’s food club open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. She said they are still in the planning stages and how the club operates can be changed.

McCahill said representatives from 10 organizations – including from Berrien County Health Department, United Way of Southwest Michigan, Lakeland Health and Kinexus – have been meeting for two years to develop the idea. Seven possible locations have been identified in the Benton Harbor and Benton Township areas.

McCahill said it is difficult for many people in Benton Harbor to get fresh food because there is no grocery store in the city and many people have no personal transportation.

She said that leaves Benton Harbor residents with the five highest census tracts for food insecurity in the 40 counties served by Feeding American West Michigan. According to data, 44-47 percent of the people in those census tracts have food insecurity. In the 40 counties her agency serves, she said the average number of people with food insecurity is 12.2 percent.

“We don’t want mom skipping a meal because she has three kids to feed,” she said.

Being food secure means more than just having food to eat. She said it has to be healthy food so people can live healthier lives, which means less money is spent on health care. And fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find in the city’s limits.

One way to measure the health of a community is to look at its mortality rate, which measures the number of deaths per 100,000 people.

“The mortality rate (in Benton Harbor) is 1,570,” she said. “That’s compared to the state of Michigan, which is at 782. So (Benton Harbor’s mortality rate) is more than double.”

One possible location for the club is the former Calvin Britain School at 209 E. Britain Ave. Peter Colovos of Prairie Real Estate Group, which owns the building, said that would be a wonderful way to put the building back in service and to revitalize the community.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege