The Friendship Centers of Emmet County (FCEC) started in the 1960s as small social gatherings in the neighborhood church basement. Today, FCEC is a full-fledged nonprofit with sites in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Pellston and Brutus, and offers a variety of services for the elderly including meals, transportation, health support and personal care. The Petoskey-based nonprofit also hosts dozens of social events and gatherings throughout the year.
In 2014 FCEC launched its Farm to Senior project and joined the Good Food Initiative, which strives to bring delicious, nutritional and environmentally friendly food to more people around the country. As a part of this initiative, FCEC set two goals: bring more fresh produce to the seniors it serves, including those in the Meals on Wheels program, and provide more low-sodium options for frozen and canned food.
To put more fresh produce on plates, FCEC partnered with Coveyou Scenic Farm Market and other local farms. With the help of a Building Healthy Communities (BHC) grant, the Friendship Centers set up a salad bar and purchased containers that recipients could reuse. With the BHC grant, the nonprofit also hosted educational courses to teach lessons about food that is both delicious and nutritious. The BHC grant also allowed FCEC to purchase more kitchen tools and appliances, including a convection oven and freezer, carts, salad spinners, utensils and more reusable containers.
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan recruited the Groundwork Center, 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.
The BHC grant’s largest impact at the Friendship Centers of Emmet County has been a surge in enthusiasm from those who receive services, said FCEC health services director Christine Scott.
“We want to get them thinking about eating healthy and local,” said Scott. Before this shift, FCEC had purchased 90 percent of its food from Gordon Food Service in order to get discounts. Now a majority comes from local sources.
Scott recognizes a rising movement across the country toward healthier, local foods, and that groundswell is starting to reach America’s senior citizens. The Friendship Center’s Farm to Senior project’s greatest impact may be the educational classes that provide seniors with tips and tricks in addition to healthy recipes. “It’s our mission to keep them in their homes as long as possible, and their diet is a big part of that,” said Scott.
FCEC has also tried to spread the word about the project so that other organizations use it as a model. “I would love to have (local food) spread not just into schools but into all organizations that serve our citizens,” said Scott.