MSU Extension focuses on food access for all

From farmers market vouchers to innovative meal delivery services, MSU Extension is committed to helping Michiganders access healthy and nutritious foods.

Various food items on a table.
One of the meal kits from the food delivery pilot program MSU Extension created with the Father Fred Foundation's food pantry. Photo: MSU Extension.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension is committed to supporting the health and well-being of people all across the state. This commitment goes beyond teaching what nutritious food is and why it’s so critical to our health and well-being. MSU Extension also supports people who are struggling with the “how,” as in: “How do I find and how can I afford healthy foods?”

MSU Extension educators consider and address issues of food access in virtually all nutrition and physical activity programming. These are some of Extension’s key food access efforts that are making tremendous differences in people’s lives.

Reaching out to those in need

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, MSU Extension community nutrition instructor Sulaiman Mansour was working closely with the refugee population in southeastern Michigan. Many refugees who participated in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) classes Mansour taught shared with him their fear of shopping because of COVID-19 and that they didn’t know how to make healthy food choices. Mansour helped participants read nutrition labels, access the Double Up Food Bucks program and learn when various fruits and vegetables are in season in Michigan.

Seeing that the pandemic posed special challenges when it came to food access, Mansour also showed participants how to use grocery store apps, how to place orders online for pick-up or delivery, and how to arrange their shopping lists based on store layouts to more efficiently and quickly shop for food. This additional support helped his SNAP-Ed participants access nutritious foods while navigating language barriers and observing social distancing measures.

Innovating with compassion

In September 2020, staff and volunteers with the Father Fred Foundation in Grand Traverse County noticed that fewer families were using the organization’s food pantry. Yet food insecurity was very much present in the community, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that safety concerns and stigma could be to blame for the drop, MSU Extension nutrition instructors and registered dieticians Jane Rapin and Michelle Smith created an innovative program that safely and securely connects families in need to nutritious foods.

The program runs much like a meal delivery service, with MSU Extension staff members working alongside pantry staff and volunteers to:

  • Test and choose healthy recipes.
  • Shop for ingredients.
  • Create picture-based recipe cards.
  • Package the food and recipe cards in donation boxes.
  • Deliver everything to five early child care sites in northwest Michigan for distribution.

Currently, more than 120 families receive food boxes twice a month. The Father Fred Foundation has agreed to permanently fund the program, which organizers hope will soon reach 200 families.

“Families are cooking with fresh produce and eating fresh produce that they would not have without this program,” said Mandy Stark of Pitter Patter Preschool in Kingsley.

Eating well in Flint

MSU Extension also has had a long-standing partnership with the nonprofit Edible Flint, whose mission is “to support community residents in growing and accessing healthy food in order to reconnect with the land and each other.”

Each year, the organization holds a Distribution Day community event, where Flint and Genesee County residents can pick up garden kits containing seed packets, vegetable transplants, and other items. Almost 450 kits, which are designed to empower residents to grow their own food, were given out at Distribution Day 2021 in late May.

A prescription for good health

The Prescriptions for Health program uses the Discover Michigan Fresh materials to help people, primarily those with chronic diseases:

  • Discover the fresh produce available at their local farmers markets.
  • Learn how eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables can help improve their health.

The majority of participants in Prescriptions for Health are SNAP-eligible. The program also offers participants a $5 incentive for each nutrition education session they attend. Farmers market tours help participants get to know the markets and explore Michigan-grown produce.

MSU Extension partners with Munson Healthcare to deliver the program in northwestern Lower Michigan and with the District 10 Health Department to deliver the program in mid-Michigan.

Advocating for access

In mid-February, three MSU Extension staff members – educator Sarah Eichberger and community nutrition instructors Kendra Gibson and Jane Rapin – presented on food access issues before subcommittees of the Governor’s Food Security Council. They appeared at the invitation of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan.

The trio’s charge was to share the perspectives and insight they have learned from MSU Extension program participants who experience food insecurity. Discussing the challenges of everything from transportation to connecting with the right resources, they offered recommendations for improving food access issues, such as by supporting:

  • Fresh food incentive programs.
  • School food and nutrition efforts.
  • Food delivery mobile units.

Subcommittee members are now using what they learned from the presentations by the MSU Extension staff members and others to develop recommendations for improving community food access across the state.

Helping seniors find fresh foods

The Senior Project FRESH program aims to help older Michiganders with restricted incomes include local farm-fresh produce in their diets. The program provides nutrition education and distributes produce coupons to senior citizens in 17 Michigan counties. Each year, program participants receive ten $2 vouchers they can use from May to October to buy Michigan-grown produce from approved farm stands, roadside stands, farmers markets and growers. Senior Project FRESH participants must:

  • Be 60 years and older, or 55 and older and a member of a Michigan federally recognized tribe or urban tribal group.
  • Live in the county where the coupons are distributed.
  • Have income at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

Find out more

For more information on how MSU Extension is supporting nutrition and physical activity efforts across the state, visit our Food and Health website.

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