Surpassing Expectations: Manna and Coveyou Team Up for USDA Produce Program
Jessyca Stoepker | August 31, 2020
As part of a relief effort, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) partnered with national, regional, and local businesses to implement the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.” The goal was to purchase nearly $3 billion in produce, dairy, and meat products, package the products into boxes, then transport them to food banks, community organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.
Though distributors of any size were encouraged to apply, the majority of those approved were large-scale food distributors and processors. But there was one supplier, a family farm in our corner of the world, also selected: Coveyou Scenic Farm Market of Petoskey.
Coveyou Farms is a working Michigan Centennial Farm operated by the same family for more than 140 years, providing Northern Michigan with fresh organic produce and artisan goods. David Coveyou said in an interview that he was one of the only farms in Michigan, and the Midwest, on the USDA’s list.
“USDA announced this program in April, with a simple application since the agency had never done this before. A week later they announced the recipients. We had very little time to get everything together,” he says, “and we needed a partner to help us.”
Despite the many unknowns, David was able to strategize and get the operation up and rolling in May, and Manna agreed to be his primary distributor.
In addition to produce from their own fields, Coveyou works with ten other local growers to supply the items—varying from carrots, cucumbers, and radishes to potatoes, peaches, and lettuce. Once the produce arrives, his workers prep it, sort it, and pack it into boxes. The boxes are stacked high onto wooden pallets and loaded into Manna’s refrigerated trucks. Manna then delivers them to partner agencies, supplying hundreds of boxes each day to families throughout Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties. “Produce can literally come in the morning it’s harvested and make its way onto dinner tables that same evening,” David explains.
When I visited Coveyou, eight young adults and high school students were working on the assembly line with Dave and his kids, including four-year-old Lillian. All the workers wore masks, most wore gloves and blue jeans. Music blasted in the background. The modern flow of productivity contrasted with the old beams of the barn, giving the place a new voice.
By the end of July, their team had already assembled over 12,000 boxes, and expected to hit the 15,000 mark by the time the contract is over later this summer. This feat is inspiring by itself—and then I remembered that they’re also still running their other business as usual, their farm market just a floor above. “On the whole, it’s worked out really well. But, quite honestly, it’s nothing like I envisioned.”
The program has been a huge experiment for Coveyou, testing how much they can innovate, and how creative and hardworking they can be. David says they’ve surpassed their own expectations. Gradual upgrades to their basement assembly area helped to streamline the process—especially by adding a long roller table for the line, walk-in coolers, and new lighting.
How fast can they go? I learned their top speed is just under 500 boxes an hour. “The prep takes the most time: the washing lettuce, the shuffling, and getting everything ready is actually more time-consuming than packing boxes,” says David. “It takes a couple hours just to get set up in the morning.”Days are long, with the field hands starting at 7 a.m. and heading home at 6 p.m. or later. David works right alongside them: packing, sorting, lifting, counting.
And then we play our part. Manna trucks average 4,000 miles per month, delivering to Mancelona and Central Lake, up through Charlevoix and East Jordan, and all the way to Alanson and Pellston. The Salvation Army receives 130 boxes for their clients each Monday, while the Friendship Center gets 100 for their seniors on Wednesdays.Even Boyne City, Pellston, and Petoskey schools are on Manna’s delivery schedule. “This concept is so new, but so, so wonderful,” says Beth Kavanaugh, Food Service Director for Petoskey Public Schools. “It’s meeting a huge need we didn’t even know we had.”
David has received thank-you letters from elderly residents, who saw his logo on the outside of the boxes and looked up his address. He’s received phone calls as well, including from some parents who received boxes from the schools. Another story I heard was about a woman who, due to health issues, no longer could have a garden of her own. When she opened her first box, she burst into tears and told the director at a partner food pantry, “I have missed this so much.”
“People are not just getting a box: they’re getting a positive experience out of it. It’s those stories that really make all the difference to me,” David says.
—Jessyca Stoepker, Program Coordinator
Down to earth
Jessyca Stoepker | May 21, 2020
Warm weather has finally arrived, and that means hundreds of farmers throughout Northwest Michigan are out in the fields planting and tending crops, and getting ready for farmer’s markets and CSA shares.
But this season looks a bit different. Though stress often comes with this line of work, there’s a lot more anxiety and a lot less certainty this year than most. The impact of COVID-19 will be far-reaching and likely to affect growers well after the season is over—physically, socially, and economically.
As you know, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities created the Local Food Relief Fund in response to this issue, raising over $170,000 so that hunger relief organizations like Manna can purchase directly from local farmers to help recover their economic losses. Once Manna received our portion of the funds, it took a few days for us to plan our approach. Would it look different from our produce purchases in years past? What would be this year’s overall budget, including other grants towards produce, and how would we allocate it? Our farming partners had the same questions.
Well, once the entire list of potential farms was in front of us, we decided that we wouldn’t pick and choose: we’d buy from all of them. So this year, Manna plans to work with over 20 different growing partners—some new, many returning friends.
I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many of these folks: Adam and Haley from UnderToe, Andre from Peaceful Valley, Chelsea and Nick from Huddleston, and a good number more. All are bright, kind, and down-to-earth, and it’s obvious that they care deeply about their little corner of the world, wherever it may be.
In my conversations, I’ve learned a lot about each farm family: how many kids they have, that they already donate to a local food pantry, that they’ve just started a small co-op. I’ve also learned that several of these farms are “green,” or just starting out. I’m excited for them and that, through this long-term partnership, we can help make their journey successful.
The first purchase using dollars from the Local Food Relief Fund was about 20 pounds of beautiful romaine from Open Sky Organic Farm. Susan, who owns the farm with her partner, Sam, also dropped off two bags full of storage onions as a donation.
This part of the equation, finding a home for surplus produce, is what I love telling new partners about. From all the feedback I’ve received, wasted produce occurs no matter how closely you adjust your sowing, and often farmers just don’t have an outlet for the excess. So we’ll get a call: “I have cucumbers coming out my ears!” or “If you can glean ‘em, take ‘em!”
And then we determine what works best for each farm. Could we assemble a group of volunteers to harvest the field? Could we buy the product at a wholesale price? Could we pay a farm’s workers their wages in exchange for all the cukes? At the end of the day, the biggest relief is that the food goes to fill bellies, not bins.
This is just one of the many ways Manna has the ability to make sure both sides—farmers and hungry clients—have their needs met.
Pictured: Rachel from Spirit of Walloon Market Garden (left) and Susan from Open Sky Organic Farm (right).
Jessyca Stoepker | Last updated March 30, 2020, 2:00 pm
These new procedures will be in effect until further notice.
Manna Community Food Pantry will be open and operating as a curbside service outside of the facility, distributing pre-assembled food boxes with a variety of shelf-stable, fresh, and frozen foods. This service is available to anyone in need:
Emergency food boxes will also be available seven days a week at Manna, during regular business hours or by calling 231.675.5715.
Anyone who needs food is welcome to receive it from Manna Food Project. Proof of household income is not required to receive food assistance.
While we normally recommend using our services once every other week, we realize that school closures, illness, and financial stress is putting a greater burden on families. So, when individuals and families need more food, they are welcome to return to Manna.
At this time, clients will not be able to choose what food items they receive, unless there are special circumstances (e.g. allergies, homelessness). Be assured that the food we provide is of high quality, with both shelf-stable and fresh food items that will last several days.
Yes, you may have a friend, neighbor, or relative pick up food. They will need to provide the name of the client, the client’s address, the number and ages of the people in the household, and their own signature.
Under special circumstances, Manna will deliver food boxes directly to residences within our immediate service area. Clients must live in Emmet county and meet the qualifications below:
As a partner of the Feeding America National Food Bank Network, Manna will continue to have access to enough food to serve those in need. We are also sourcing food from local businesses and manufacturers. While this situation may seem frightening, we can assure you that Manna and its partner agencies in Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties will have enough food for everyone in need of assistance.
We’ve received many calls from community members wanting to help. Here are some things you can do at this time:
We strongly encourage everyone to stay up to date with COVID-19 news and updates. For reliable and trustworthy information, please visit the State of Michigan’s website at www.michigan.gov/coronavirus or the federal website at www.coronavirus.gov.
Manna Food Project COVID-19 Preparedness Practices
Jessyca Stoepker | March 13, 2020
Manna is committed to do its part in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The following preparedness practices focus on protecting the well-being of our staff, volunteers, and people facing hunger during this public health threat. While we are taking this threat seriously, we are encouraging everyone to remain calm and rational—confident in the measures we are taking.
At this time, Manna will continue most operations, including:
Since Michigan schools are currently closed through April 6, we will not be delivering “Food 4 Kids” backpacks to area schools. However, Manna and its partners are currently exploring other ways to provide backpack food items to at-risk elementary and preschool students so that they do not go hungry.
In an effort to promote “social distancing” during this time, Manna will limit access to and time spent at our facility by:
These new procedures will be in effect until further notice.
In addition, Manna will encourage staff and volunteers to follow recommended ways to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses:
Manna Community Food Pantry
Until further notice, Manna Community Food Pantry will be closed. However, pre-assembled food boxes with a variety of shelf-stable and fresh foods will be available on regularly scheduled pantry days:
Emergency food boxes will also be available 24/7 at Manna, during regular business hours or by calling 231.675.5715.
Client registration and distribution of food boxes will take place from Manna’s street-level loading dock or as a drive-through pantry service. Staff and volunteers will assist loading food boxes into client vehicles. Under special circumstances, Manna will deliver food boxes directly to residences within our immediate service area.
Manna will implement procedures to more frequently clean our facility, work areas, and vehicles, ensuring a safe space for all.
We strongly encourage everyone to stay up to date with COVID-19 news and updates. For reliable and trustworthy information, please visit www.coronavirus.gov.
What You Can Do
We’ve received many calls from community members wanting to help. Here are some things you can do at this time:
Thank you for your cooperation, understanding, and continued support during this time.
The Problem of Senior Hunger
Jessyca Stoepker | February 1, 2020
When we picture what hunger may look like, we often imagine a single mother working odd jobs and her kids waiting at home with empty stomachs. We picture homeless men and women on the streets, or college students on a budget. Though these situations are also a troubling reality, many of us sometimes forget the case that’s becoming more and more common: hungry seniors.
United Way reports that, as our country’s population ages, the number of food insecure seniors is also increasing. In fact, the numbers more than doubled from 2001 to 2016, reaching 4.9 million (United Way of Northern New Jersey, 2019).
In 2016, nearly a quarter of Michigan residents were age 60 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Northern Michigan, in particular, has a higher concentration of seniors than counties located in the southern portion of the state. For example, as older generations move to this picturesque area to retire, younger generations are having fewer kids and moving away for new careers. The graph below is from the US Census Bureau and uses data compiled by Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.
In short, Northern Michigan’s population is aging fast. And it doesn’t seem like our services can keep up with their needs. According to Feeding America West Michigan, there are five major contributing factors to senior hunger.
Unfortunately, seniors who experience food insecurity are more likely than others to experience chronic conditions such as depression, asthma, chest pain, activity limitations, and high blood pressure--worsening their already compromised health and adding to their feelings of exclusion and powerlessness.
Manna Food Project partners with several programs in our tri-county area to combat this growing issue, including Friendship and Seniors Centers, churches, and local Commission on Aging sites. Nearly 25% of Manna’s regular food pantry clients are seniors, as well. Recently, we’ve implemented a “Senior Shelf” in our pantry to ensure our older community members receive the right nutrition they need.
While the issue of senior hunger seems to expand as our population ages, Manna and our partners will continue to work toward a food secure future for everyone.
Examining the Cost of Living: How We Help with More Than Just Food
Jessyca Stoepker | October 30, 2019
There is a misconception that those who struggle with hunger are perhaps not trying hard enough to get back on their feet. In fact, it’s mostly the opposite: no matter what some families seem to do, they cannot catch up.
Much of this is due to the cost of living in the United States continuing to increase. Here is a chart created by the 2019 United Way ALICE Project detailing a “household survival budget” in Emmet County. According to United Way, the household survival budget reflects the bare minimum that a household needs to live and work in today’s economy. It does not include savings for emergencies, college, or future goals.
These costs were well above the Federal Poverty Level of $12,060 for a single adult and $24,600 for a family of four. Family costs increased by 26 percent statewide from 2010 to 2017, compared to 12 percent inflation nationally.
Looking at these numbers, it makes sense why even someone holding two jobs is unable to provide for their family. And if you add anything else into the mix--a tragic accident, insulin prescriptions, a cancer diagnosis, or a totaled car--a household’s entire future could be thrown into disarray.
We firmly believe that no one should have to choose between keeping the lights on or going hungry. By offering supplemental food, we not only provide families with an essential need but also allow them to redistribute their funds to other expenses. In these ways, you can be confident that what we do is bettering our community.
Why Hunger is a Health Issue
Jessyca Stoepker | August 8, 2019
Physicians, healthcare providers, and a growing number of other professionals have come to recognize hunger as a health issue. This is because many factors outside of genetics or medical care contribute to a person’s well-being–including social, economic, physical, or other conditions related to our surrounding environments.
Poverty, for example, involves a person’s economic status. That means it directly affects what a person spends their money on. Fresh veggies for the week, or a utility bill? Snacks for the kids, or a car payment?
Between low-paying jobs and caring for kids, many turn to cheap grab-and-go meals that are full of saturated fats, sodium, and sugar. But these “convenience” foods–cheeseburger dinners, gas station burritos, breakfast sandwiches from fast food chains–are hardly convenient in the long run.
A multitude of studies have shown that regular consumption of these foods may lead to chronic diseases like type II diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even arthritis. Obesity may also arise, often happening when food deprivation is followed by overeating when food is finally available.
Here’s an excerpt from a Food Research & Action Center publication that goes into further detail:
“Food-insecure and low-income people can be especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and obesity, due to additional risk factors associated with inadequate household resources as well as under-resourced communities. This might include lack of access to healthy and affordable foods; cycles of food deprivation and overeating; high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; fewer opportunities for physical activity; greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products; and limited access to health care. In addition to these unique challenges, those who are food insecure or low income are subject to the same and often challenging cultural changes (e.g., more sedentary lifestyles, increased portion sizes) as other Americans in trying to adopt and maintain healthful behaviors.” (Source: Food Research & Action Center, December 2017)
Unfortunately, these poor health outcomes pose challenges for families in the long run. Now in addition to all existing expenses, they must pay for medical treatments, emergency room visits, and prescriptions. I think we all can relate to how difficult that can be. And even beyond the personal consequences for individuals and families, there are costly implications for our economy and healthcare system as a whole.
Fortunately, that is why Manna exists: to provide food to those in need. We provide support when families need it most and we encourage our clients to utilize government food programs like SNAP, WIC, and Double Up Food Bucks for produce incentives at farmer’s markets. Programs such as these help reduce food insecurity, alleviate poverty, and improve community health, and we are proud to be part of these solutions.
Manna’s newest partnership will excite your inner “foodie”
Jessyca Stoepker | May 7, 2019
Northern Michigan’s food and drink scene is something to marvel at. From wine trails and breweries, to coffee and specialty shops, Petoskey draws thousands of visitors each year to savor the best.
If you’re a Northern Michigan “foodie,” there’s a good chance you stock your cupboard with Fustini’s oils or have enjoyed meals at local restaurants dressed with Fustini’s vinegars. They have a full decade of history in downtown Petoskey, providing high-quality culinary ingredients.
Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars has flourished in our region because of their nutritious products, commitment to artisanal craft, and unwavering dedication to their community. That dedication can be seen in founder Jim Milligan’s decision to give back in a big way—to share the 10th anniversary of their Petoskey store with Manna.
In celebration of “One Delicious Decade,” Fustini’s is donating $1 for every bottle purchased this summer to Manna, starting May 8 and lasting until September 15. They also have plans to partner with us in other ways, like donating bottles of olive oil for our pantry clients.
Now, I’ll be honest: before Fustini’s approached Manna, I had never purchased “craft” oil or vinegar. On the rare occasion I spent time making a nice dinner for myself, I used off-brand products (or even skipped those ingredients altogether), thinking that they wouldn’t add much to the dish.
How wrong I was! My first visit to Fustini’s changed my mind—and now I realize with dismay that I could have been enjoying my own cooking a whole lot more.
After sampling vinegar after vinegar—peach, lavender, cinnamon pear, avocado, black truffle, pomegranate, Sicilian lemon—I found my favorite. Never in a hundred years would I have thought to buy a bottle of coconut balsamic vinegar, but that’s the one I left with!
And I didn’t have to feel guilty about it, either. Vinegars are naturally low in calories, while oils are high in antioxidants, and both provide other essential nutrients for a healthy diet. As a health-conscious person, knowing the nutrition benefits made me even happier with my purchase.
During my visit, Charlene, Petoskey’s store manager, proudly showed me the kitchen area, where their chefs conduct hands-on cooking classes and demonstrations. Check out their website at www.fustinis.com for a class that intrigues you. On the third Tuesday of the month, Fustini’s also hosts “Cooking for a Cause,” where a portion of the class fees supports a local charity.
This summer, I plan to take advantage of the $1 per bottle fundraiser. And, since the store is located on Howard Street just a short walk from where I live, I have no doubt that I’ll find a few other favorites before the season’s over.
Ten Years of Generosity
Petoskey United Methodist Church’s vegetable garden changes lives of those in need
Jessyca Stoepker | September 2018
As the heat of the day subsides and the sun begins to sink behind the trees, the serenity of the Petoskey United Methodist Church’s community vegetable garden can fully be grasped. The curious music of the drums and horns of the high school marching band down the hill makes for a unique setting as volunteers move through the planted rows.
The project was first initiated ten years ago by Charles Johnson, Emmet County Circuit Court Judge. The garden was meant to hit three birds with one stone: to engage church members, to provide fulfilling community service opportunities, and to supply fresh produce directly to Manna. On Monday evenings, the group gathers to harvest sugar snap peas, green beans, cabbage, squash, tomatoes, and other vegetables for Manna to provide to their pantry clients the next morning.
The process begins in March when the leaders get together and diagram it all out—from the beets to the greens—according to the size of rotating plots. Then they go to work. After seeding, they stick to a spraying and fertilization schedule. The organizers are thankful for Bill McMaster and Gruler’s Farm Supply, who have generously donated the seeds every year.
The garden with humble beginnings has turned into an organized group of individuals and groups from within the community, led each year by designated individuals. Jackie Rowe and Carla Weiskoph were the gardeners “in charge” this year.
While Carla is finishing up her first year in the garden, veteran gardener Jackie already regards her as an excellent resource for the other workers. Carla explained it was a combination of fate and a love of gardening that brought her here. “I have always enjoyed having my hands in the earth,” she said. During our conversation she often turned to direct other gardeners about what to harvest.
Judge Johnson estimates that the garden has donated about 25,000 pounds of produce to Manna Food Project over the last decade. Their large harvest is impressive, and the importance of what they provide to the community is never forgotten. “The fresh stuff is where it really counts,” Carla said.
It’s also a great opportunity to get back to nature and to meet new people. “I encourage anyone who’s got some land and some water to plant a garden,” Jackie adds.
The end of the season is usually sometime in late September or early October. The garden is open for anyone to come, learn, and make a difference.
Manna Food Project sincerely thanks the Petoskey United Methodist Church and all garden volunteers for their generous donations over the past 10 years, and we look forward to continuing our partnership to feed the hungry.