SMCAA teams up with local farmers to increase food distribution

Tony Wittkowski - Herald Palladium

Sep 30, 2020

Volunteers and staff with the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency distribute food to hundreds of families during a food distribution drive-thru held in Benton Harbor in April.

BENTON HARBOR — The Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency has been busy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organization, which was formed to assist people in economic need, has seen changes this summer after partnering with local farmers to offer fresh fruit and vegetables in their food distribution efforts.

In the past, most of the food items have been frozen, including produce. However, SMCAA acquired new refrigeration equipment and found local farmers who have a surplus of produce.

Kim Smith Oldham, executive director of SMCAA, said the organization was able to buy walk-in freezers through grant funding – which has proven to be the difference maker. She said they were also given a forklift courtesy of Plante Moran, which was needed for moving equipment.

“We built the freezer in less than two weeks,” Smith Oldham said. “This will continue on. We probably have three times as much food as we have in the past. We even expanded to a second warehouse site.”

Yvonne Vidt, community services manager at SMCAA, said another factor to the organization’s increased efforts have come from area farmers.

Vidt found two farmers – from Benton Harbor and Watervliet – in June at the Benton Harbor Farmers Market.

Among the fresh produce they were able to give to clients were watermelons, broccoli, potatoes and tomatoes.

“For awhile, our senior clients were not even going to the grocery store. They were going through our lines. Everyone’s been affected by COVID,” Vidt said. “They were very happy for that because it minimized their risk and saved them dollars. We are now able to offer dairy products, milk and eggs.”

The partnership has been ongoing for the past two months.

“We’re going to continue doing that, but we want to reach out to them to find out what’s in season right now,” Vidt said. “We passed (the produce) out during our senior commodities every month. We also gave them away through family distributions.”

Vidt said they help more than 11,000 families across the region.

All the food giveaways since March have also been under the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Berrien County Health Department.

Smith Oldham said the food distribution events are made to be as safe as possible, as families pick up their supplies through a drive-thru system in which they don’t get out of the car, but pop open the trunk for everything to be loaded.

SMCAA is doing one food giveaway each month. However, they have upped their effort by partnering with several agencies to pass out more than just food, including masks, batteries and light bulbs.

“We’ve had so many giveaways that I was amazed at how many volunteers we’ve had,” Vidt said. “It was an eye-opener. We had 20-25 volunteers per food giveaway.”

SMCAA is still in need for volunteers to pack donated materials on the warehouse side of the operation.

Vidt said they are behind in packing and are asking people to help with more than 2,000 senior boxes and another 4,000 family boxes that are dispersed each month.

“We have just opened it up to small groups to come in and help,” she said. “It’s important we go by the rules. If anyone feels uncomfortable and wants more protections, we do have (hazmat) suits and gloves to use.”

To learn more about volunteering or donating to the SMCAA, call the agency at 925-9077 and ask for Smith Oldham or Vidt.