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Feeding America West Michigan distributes 400 millionth pound of food

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The Grand Rapids-area food bank passes a milestone in West Michigan hunger relief.
The story behind the number is one of tenacious compassion, says CEO Ken Estelle.

The story behind the number is one of tenacious compassion, says CEO Ken Estelle.

Food Bank Timeline

1981: West Michigan Gleaners, Inc. is founded

1982: Gretchen Bouwsma becomes executive director, 49,000-pound donation of onions launches the Food Bank's reclamation program

1983: Move to Jefferson Street warehouse, 1 million pound distributed

1984: Joins national Second Harvest network

1987: First vehicle acquired with joint grant from United Way of Kent County and others

1989: John Arnold becomes executive director, Upper Peninsula added to territory

1990: Cadillac branch opens, 20 millionth pound distributed

1991: Move to Front Avenue warehouse

1992: Sault Ste. Marie and St. Joseph branches open

1995: First tractor and trailers donated, 60 millionth pound distributed

1998: Mobile Food Pantry concept developed, truck fleet continues to grow

1999: 100 millionth pound of food distributed, Ishpeming branch added

2000: Move to Comstock Park warehouse

2002: 150 millionth pound distributed

2007: 250 millionth pound distributed

2009: Name changed to Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank

2013: First Mobile Food Pantries in the Upper Peninsula

John Arnold, Feeding America West Michigan's longest-serving director

John Arnold, Feeding America West Michigan's longest-serving director /Feeding America West Michigan

Ken Estelle became CEO in 2011

Ken Estelle became CEO in 2011 /Feeding America West Michigan

On March 18, 2014, Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank distributed its 400 millionth pound of food.

The story of how we got from our first pound more than three decades ago to 400 million today is a story of compassion and tenacity. It’s the story of thousands of volunteers, donors and advocates who saw us through three moves, four recessions, hundreds of truck repairs and an expansion from one county into 40. But most importantly, it’s the story of all those children who were able to grow up and live out their dreams because hunger didn’t hold them back.

I’d like to look back at our history and recognize just a few of the dreamers who got us here.

West Michigan Gleaners, Inc. was incorporated on April 23, 1981, under the direction of Betty Jane Alkema. At that time the Food Bank was operating in 5,000 square feet of rented space on Logan Street in southwest Grand Rapids and distributing about 8,000 pounds of food per month. But it wasn’t long before the idea of food banking took off.

“We had that big warehouse just across the river from downtown Grand Rapids,” said former executive director Gretchen Bouwsma, who oversaw the move to the Jefferson location, “and someone gave us a whole truck full of onions. And the only thing wrong with them [was] they had a little black you had to wipe off.”

When another farmer dropped off a truckload of carrots soon after, the then-revolutionary idea of reclaiming surplus food took root in West Michigan.

The Food Bank distributed its 1 millionth pound of food under Gretchen’s leadership in November 1983, and the following year, our Food Bank tapped in to the national food system by joining the fledgling Second Harvest network.

1989 saw the beginning of John Arnold’s tenure as executive director. In the succeeding decades the Food Bank grew and changed, stretching into the Upper Peninsula and pioneering new ideas like client choice and Mobile Food Pantries that would become hallmarks of American food banking.

Since I had the daunting task of stepping into John, Gretchen and Betty Jane’s shoes, Feeding America West Michigan has dedicated more resources to sourcing healthy foods, brought Mobile Food Pantries to the UP for the first time, forged new partnerships with local schools and added Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan to our network of warehouses.

But for as much as the Food Bank has changed over the years, our mission has remained the same: to get food to our neighbors in need. For as long as hunger threatens people in our communities, Feeding America West Michigan will be there to lend a hand.

We hope you’ll be there too.

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