UMCH works to expand Fresh Market pilot

South Division food store raises profile among neighbors, adds hours and classes, seeks volunteers.
164
United Methodist Community House in April launched The Fresh Market at UMCH at its owned building at 900 Division Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. Courtesy The Fresh Market at UMCH

United Methodist Community House has under its belt just over six months of running its Fresh Market and is in the process of expanding its hours and offerings for residents of 49507.

Grand Rapids-based United Methodist Community House in April launched The Fresh Market at UMCH at its owned building at 900 Division Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. The Fresh Market is a pilot program supported by seed funding from Access of West Michigan and other donors, and UMCH is currently working to make it sustainable and long-lasting.

Located in the racially diverse 49507 ZIP code that has been called a food desert, the Fresh Market at UMCH — which is open to all — is designed to bring healthy, affordable food options to residents of southeast Grand Rapids, including those who are food insecure. Founded in 1902, UMCH has a long history of taking a holistic approach to meet the evolving needs of its neighbors in southeast Grand Rapids, which now includes the need for affordable food.

UMCH sources mostly organic seasonal produce and some dry goods from Cherry Capital, FarmLink, Groundswell and New City Farm to supply families with healthy options.

The market accepts seven forms of payment, including EBT, Snap, MasterCard, Visa, cash and more — allowing for customers to use their government assistance to pay for their goods, and it also offers sliding scale pricing based on household income.

Carla Moore, co-CEO of UMCH alongside Eric Williams, said it’s important to note that families and individuals of all income levels and locations are welcome to shop at the market, and that when people who can pay full price frequent the store, it helps generate the revenue to keep it going, which in turn provides greater impact and greater access for families in need.

Moore said the pandemic has brought many challenges to the pilot market, which initially was open 4-7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays, but had to reduce its hours down to one day a week — 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays — due to not being able to find enough staff to run it on other days.

“It is a pilot program for us, and so that means there have been a lot of learning opportunities,” Moore said. “It is going well in terms of what we’re able to provide, neighbors becoming aware that we’re actually present, those kinds of things, but there have been some growing pains. This job market is really, really tough right now, and so having the appropriate staff and types of staff to really move like we wanted to has been somewhat of a challenge, to the point where we’re operating under reduced hours.”

She said despite the tough labor market, UMCH made enough noise about needing more staff and volunteers that it was able to hire someone, and it has been contacted more frequently by prospective volunteers, as well. To run the shop most effectively, she said UMCH needs about three to four consistent volunteers in the market, as well as paid staff.

The Fresh Market planned to reopen a few more days a week as of press time, but Moore said people should continue to check thefreshmarketatumch.com for the latest updates.

Moore said it’s rewarding to be involved with The Fresh Market when she thinks about consumers like one woman from the neighborhood who comes in to buy tomatillos that she then incorporates into salsa verde, which she sells in the community as a side business.

UMCH also is looking forward to launching health education, nutrition and cooking classes later this fall after seeing some customers’ reactions to unfamiliar foods they didn’t know how to incorporate into meals, such as eggplant.

“We’re in the process of organizing those so that we can begin to engage (residents) in other ways. Besides being a consumer and coming into this space … (they’ll be able to access) things that are even more meaningful and (we’ll be) helping to establish and really build and strengthen that sense of community along the South Division corridor,” Moore said. “What greater way than to bring people together than over food?”

Moore said by offering this education, UMCH hopes to disrupt patterns of unhealthy choices, like running to the Burger King just down the road instead of buying and cooking healthy food. She said she believes the Fresh Market already is doing a good job listening to its customers and engaging them, but more work lies ahead.

“Typically, in food justice spaces, there really isn’t a voice of people of color, and this is an outlet for that voice,” she said. “We keep a running list of items and things that they would like to see, and the inventory is really being informed by the desires of the consumer. But there’s going to be an educational learning curve that has to take place, because we’re dealing with people’s habits, preferences and the way that they’ve been ingrained about to think about nutrition and food. …

“We’re really focusing on what are those ways that we can help the community embrace good food values. Good food values are broad, right? Yes, it’s about food and food quality and access to food, but it’s also about the system by which food is delivered, produced and who is able to access it. It’s really understanding our definition of ‘good’ around food and bringing the community along with us.”

Moore said she is thankful others in 49507 also are trying to increase food justice for underserved and vulnerable populations, such as Alita Kelly and Khara DeWit, co-founders of the South East Market, a for-profit store that sources from local, minority- and women-owned farms that put an emphasis on sustainability and affordability.

“That is an absolutely fantastic program. It’s a little bit different of a model, but it is very complementary, and we are positioned quite a ways apart, so we’re impacting two different immediate neighborhoods,” she said. “We really view them as a partner in the fight for justice.”

Moore said the team at UMCH is pleased with The Fresh Market’s progress and confident in its future.

“The market has really been a process of learning and growing, and we just couldn’t be more pleased or blessed; we just couldn’t feel any better about the response that we have been receiving from our immediate neighbors and just the relationships that we’re being able to build,” she said. “It’s amazing, it really is, and we’re having a good time.”

More information about United Methodist Community House and its programs is at umchousegr.org.

Facebook Comments