Food Access Study Session: Food Distribution with Tribal Communities

On Wednesday, January 17th, members of the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network (FFN) and the Local Food Alliance (LFA) had the pleasure of getting a tour of the Food Distribution Center for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians (LTBB). As the Food Access Task Force Study Session of the FFN, this trip proved to be as enlightening as we could of hoped for.

When you first enter the Food Distribution Center, you’ll notice the neatness of the layout: carts tucked neatly in a row, cans organized by food groups on the shelves, bags of potatoes organized by poundage, a brightly lit cooler filled with produce and meat. Joe, the enthusiastic program director of LTBB and the Manager of the Food Distribution Center explains how methodical precision affects how efficiently he and his co-workers can complete tasks.

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“Where other food distribution centers would be overwhelmed with 36 orders, I can complete that myself in no time at all.” The trick for Joe is minimizing the number of extra movements and tasks people within the warehouse have to perform.

While Network leaders Meghan McDermott and Wendy Weiland test out putting together their own packages of food to be shipped to area residents, you can see how this efficient style of management allows for quick and focused work. Utilizing a belt with tape, markers, and measurement tools allows for that equipment to always be on hand. Using a cart and pulling it through the shelves of food products organized in accordance with the order of the list also prevents from too much scrambling and backtracking through the facility.  

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This attention to detail is shown not only in how the facility operates for the workers, but for the members of the community who use this center as a source of food and culture. A big thing you’ll notice in this Food Distribution Center is store-concept style of the layout. Rows of food set-up like aisles in a grocery store and a checkout counter with bags to carry home make the place feel more like any shopping trip around town. Seeing this store concept working for another Food Distribution Center Joe had visited inspired him to replicate a practice with proven success, and it has paid off for both the workers pulling shifts and the patrons who visit.

The experience patrons have while visiting is important to Joe, as the establishment serves not only as a place to collect food but an opportunity to connect to tribal culture. By working to supply Wild Rice, Wild Caught Salmon, and Bison, he’s not only supplying them with an excellent source of nutrition but a connection to traditional diet.

“We know that this salmon was fished by tribal fisherman, processed by tribal people and now can be consumed by tribal members.”

It’s little decisions like these that makes LTBB’s Food Distribution System stand out, and where Joe’s enthusiasm for fair food access shines. Whether it’s supplying cans with brightly colored pictures to cross language barriers, printing detailed lists of food amounts per family, a demo kitchen, recipe lists, or working to supply his store with the highest quality produce and motivating people to eat well and exercise, Joe earns his place under the spotlight in the community.  

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