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At NECM, healthy food is a universal language

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North End Community Ministry relies on volunteers, food donors and local farms to feed its diverse neighborhood.
NECM aims to create a grocery store experience at its food pantry, allowing clients to choose their own groceries.

NECM aims to create a grocery store experience at its food pantry, allowing clients to choose their own groceries. /North End Community Ministry

PJ Hefferan is the food pantry coordinator at NECM.

PJ Hefferan is the food pantry coordinator at NECM. /North End Community Ministry

Comidapagkain, or chakula: No matter how you say it, food is something we all need, and North End Community Ministry (NECM) is working hard to make sure language is not a barrier to putting a healthy meal on the table.

Amy Chavez is a client and volunteer at NECM, a Feeding America West Michigan partner agency located at New City Church in Grand Rapids. After receiving food every month for two years, she decided it was time to give back, especially now that she’s retired.

“Since these people have been so nice to me,” she says, “I’m willing to give my time to them. So I decided to volunteer.”

Soon after joining the group of volunteers, Chavez realized that her command of Spanish and English could be a valuable asset to the organization. “I feel that I’m doing something good for them, that I can be used as an interpreter,” she says.

As a client herself, Chavez is able to relate to the needs of those she serves. Raising three grandkids on her own, she knows what it’s like to have a tight grocery budget. Without access to the pantry, Chavez says, “I would be struggling and more worried about if I’m going to have enough food for the week.”

Pantry coordinator PJ Hefferan says NECM’s community is diverse, made up of Black, White, and Latino members, along with immigrants and refugees from all over the world.

Though her grandkids love her fried chicken, Chavez makes an effort to serve healthy meals at her dinner table. The variety of fresh produce and the cooking classes NECM offers have helped her do that.

NECM gets much of their food, including fresh produce, from Feeding America West Michigan. They’ve also cultivated partnerships with New City Urban Farm in Grand Rapids, Plainsong Farm in Rockford, and Meijer’s Simply Give program, ensuring that healthy food is always available.

“We develop a relationship that’s long lasting,” Hefferan says of these partnerships. “We are blessed with donations from churches, organizations and individuals.”

Personal relationships with clients are just as important. “It’s just like a family. We form relationships with the clients. We know them by first name.”

While Chavez still relies on the support of that NECM family to put food on her table, she takes pride in knowing she can give some of that support to others. “I can count on them. I can feel comfortable in life knowing there’s a place like this that can help me. I have friends and have food on my table because of them.”

As she communicates with apprehensive clients, Chavez loves being able to reassure them. “There’s no need for anyone to feel uncomfortable because they don’t speak the language of the other person. There will always be a way to understand one another.”

This story was written by communications intern Ellie Walburg.

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