Leelanau County is known near and far for being beautiful, with wealth along its shorelines and in the villages of Glen Arbor, Leland, Suttons Bay and Northport.
What many don’t know is that 8.2 percent of the county’s population languishes below the poverty line and many more hover around it. According to Michigan State University, 31 percent of children qualify for free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, which means that one third of Leelanau County children qualify for the Blessings in a Backpack program. This is where Leelanau Christian Neighbors (LCN) steps in. The nonprofit provides food for these children to take home with them over the weekend, a critical time when they might not get all the nutrition they need. LCN, which launched in 1987, also provides other resources for the community such as a food and baby pantry, and short term financial assistance for those in need.
The organization recently moved to a new and larger location in the village of Lake Leelanau, which afforded LCN a large space for a community garden. With the help of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, local businesses and a Building Healthy Communities (BHC) grant, LCN has built two dozen 4-by-8-foot raised beds in addition to 200 feet of squash rows. The beds house a variety of produce, from which volunteers harvest zucchini, jalapeños and different herbs.
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan recruited Groundwork, along with two other community partners (including Taste the Local Difference, a social enterprise of Groundwork), to identify and guide 50 local business and institutions that serve food—including schools, hospitals, food pantries, retail locations and elderly living facilities—in making changes to their food delivery system that will make healthy choices more accessible. The BHC program offers mini-grant funding to these sites that will be used to implement evidence-based health promotion strategies.
LCN typically has a volunteer work force of more than 200, but the new gardens have attracted more helpers and community support. Even local sports teams have volunteered their time to help with the project. The expanded community interest has allowed LCN to teach many newcomers the ins and outs of gardening. “It’s great to bring the community into this and see their excitement,” says director Mary Stanton.
The remainder of the BHC grant has helped LCN purchase display cases which now sit in the food pantry and house a multitude of fruits and vegetables. By putting nutritious food in these display cases, LCN makes them more prominent and more appealing to customers, some of whom aren’t accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables every day. “Most of the time healthy food is more expensive and a lot of people will often go for what’s cheaper instead of what is best for them,” says Stanton. “So we are always looking to provide those healthy options.”
With the new garden in full swing, LCN will likely see a boost in the volume of produce that can be put in those display cases. This is yet another step towards a healthier, well-fed Leelanau.