What’s In Your Mouth ?
The YMCA helps reduce the size of Grand Rapids food desert
By Elisa Mena and Arianne Morgan-Jimmerson
Have you ever truly sat down to think about what you are actually putting into your body? Yes, you look at the label on the back of food packages to read how many calories are in the servings, but do you look at the ingredients? A couple of weeks ago, students at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) were enjoying a package of Starbursts. One student became curious about the ingredients, and decided to look. They were surprised to hear gelatin was an ingredient in the product. They were even more surprised to find out that gelatin was made by boiling animal bones and ligaments. They learned if you can’t identify the ingredients, then it’s most likely not good for you. Those same students conducted an in-house taste test. During that taste test, 95 percent of the people choose organic over non-organic, based on the texture, taste and smell. So the problem isn’t with wanting to eat healthy, but rather how? Grand Rapids is an area known as a food desert. This is where non-processed foods are not easily accessed by the people. Though this food desert is a problem, the YMCA is working alongside other programs to remedy the situation.
The YMCA of Grand Rapids has a farmer’s market every Thursday that runs from June to September. They sell fresh fruits and vegetables along with eggs, breads, jellies, and many other things.
The YMCA farmer’s market is a great place for people to get fresh fruits and vegetables. It is located on the Downtown YMCA’s lawn near the main entrance. Barbara Loe, a vendor at the YMCA market, originally started farming for her family 20 years ago.
“I had so many extra vegetables that I decided I wanted to share the produce with the community.” Loe said.
Loe wanted people to get better veggies. It’s good to have the face of the farm,” she said.
Scott Townley, another vendor at the market, explained how his organization, Hope Farms, helps train new Americans how to enter the market. Townley said many refugees come to America and throw away their talent of being able to grow and sell fresh produce by going to work in factories. Townley said he likes selling produce because it is enjoyable and “it’s good for the body, mind and soul to be outside.”
As a result of wanting to expand its reach in the community, the YMCA decided a few years ago, to start a new program that is focused on getting fresh produce into the hands of more people who are affected by the food desert. It originally started in Grand Rapids and later expanded to Muskegon. These are two cities where boxed mashed potatoes and canned fruits and vegetables are eaten regularly. The YMCA’s Veggie Van aimed to help change not only how accessible healthy foods are, but also their affordability. It started a few years after the farmer’s market.
“We started the farmer’s market out here in front of the YMCA that happens once a week, but we realized it wasn’t enough,” said Sarah Vanderzanden, the YMCA’s Healthy Living Agriculture Manager.
“If we wanted to truly address food access issues we were going to have to mobilize our farmer’s market, put it on wheels, and bring it into the communities that needed fresh food the most,” she said.
The van drives around Grand Rapids and sets up farmer’s markets all around town.
However, bringing fresh foods to Grand Rapids is not the only way the community is being affected. The Veggie Van brings people together. People of all backgrounds and cultures have one thing in common — a need for fresh food.
“I’m definitely bumping up against people I don’t normally meet,” says Ryan, a regular to the van.
Other agencies are working alongside the YMCA to bring fruits and vegetables to Grand Rapids. WIC, SNAP, and Double Up Your Bucks are government programs working to help people afford these foods. Other markets are also taking into account these programs to help people get fresh food.
The YMCA is just the tip of the iceberg in this movement. Neither of these programs can fully eradicate the food desert alone. The journey of a million miles starts with a single step. These programs, along with many others, can help make Grand Rapids a healthier city, with healthier people.
If you have any interest in becoming a vendor at the market, or if you want to find out about the different organizations involved you can go to this website YMCA Farmers Market or if you have any questions, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The farmer’s market is open Thursdays from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. As previously mentioned the Veggie Van can be found all over town. The schedule is located here along with other information about the unique program: https://www.grymca.org/community-programs/community-based-programs/veggie-van/