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GRAND RAPIDS, MICH.  – As COVID continues to ravage Grand Rapids residents’ health, other needs and issues have surfaced. One of these is access to food, specifically fresh, nutritious items like fruits and vegetables. The National Kidney Foundation of Michigan (NKFM), Heartside Gleaning, the Hispanic Center of West Michigan (HCWM) and Mercy Health have collaborated to offer Heartside Gleaning’s “Good Food Box” program as part of the NKFM’s diabetes community education that Mercy Health is funding in the Latino community. The Good Food Box (GFB) program provides fresh produce purchased from or donated by area farmers markets to city neighborhoods called “food deserts” for their lack of stores selling fresh food items. Although the partnership started in early 2020, pandemic fallout such as job losses and inability to shop for groceries has increased the number of families needing food assistance.

NKFM Program Coordinator Carla Sanchez coordinates the diabetes prevention and diabetes improvement programs for the area Latino community. Every other week, Sanchez surveys her program participants on what fresh produce they want and provides recipes for those foods before the pickups. Pre-pandemic, the GFB team delivered the boxes to the class locations. Now that classes are virtual, the GFB team brings pre-packed boxes to a central location for pick up. Before COVID, Sanchez would join Heartside Gleaning at the pickup sites to do nutrition education, answer questions, inquire about participants’ health and make referrals to other programs.

“It’s been complicated with COVID — nobody wants to be exposed so now it’s very fast,” Sanchez explains. “The changes achieved in the program include participants consuming vegetables that they had never seen or simply did not buy because of their high price. I help my participants recognize what grows in Michigan, the importance of consuming what is in season, as well as how they can freeze their vegetables. Now I teach all this information virtually.”

Due to reduced access to food, many Latino residents rely on soup kitchens and food pantries for their daily food intake, where the cost of serving fresh food is often prohibitive. In addition to distributing Good Food Boxes, Heartside Gleaning also delivers fresh items to food pantries and free or low-cost meal programs throughout the city.

“By including the Good Food Baskets program as a supplement to our Diabetes Improvement and Diabetes Prevention programs, along with our connection to the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, we are addressing food insecurity in the Latino community,” states Adam Russell, NKFM Senior Program Manager.

In a mission shared by the NKFM and Mercy Health, Heartside Gleaning works to combat common health conditions (e.g. obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.) with fresh food. “Our partnership provided fresh produce, packed by community volunteers, every other week from March through November 2020,” states Lisa Sisson, Director, Heartside Gleaning Initiative. “We continue to reach Latino families identified by the NKFM and the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, with an average household size of 5 people, and about 30 pounds of produce per box.”

Offered by the NKFM, the Diabetes Improvement Program helps adults with type 2 diabetes manage their health as part of a likeminded group led by a certified lifestyle coach. The Diabetes Prevention Program offers a similar curriculum and approach to participants at risk for developing diabetes.

For more information on diabetes or these programs, visit here or call 616-458-9520.

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