Grow Benzie: Educating a Community on Nutrition, Cooking and Better Health

Benzie County, Michigan, is located in a summer beach area located just south of Traverse City on Crystal Lake. With great natural resources, beautiful homes and significant wealth for two glorious summer months, it struggles to provide sustainable economy during the other ten months of the year. A large percentage of people struggle mightily to find jobs, raise healthy children, and understand proper nutrition and cooking. A group of people, including my mother-in-law, decided to rally together to change this predicament. As board member and volunteer extraordinaire, she shares the story of launching Grow Benzie, a non-profit whose mission is all about changing – and improving – the lives of others.

Can you tell me a little bit about Grow Benzie and its mission statement?

Grow Benzie was created to be a rallying point for community programs such as community gardens, greenhouses, teaching kitchens, classrooms, and workshops.  Its focus is three-fold: to raise healthy children by giving them a chance to realize their potential; to re-energize people by teaching new skills, thus gaining confidence and independence; to be a training center designed to help change lives in our changing economy.

When and why did this organization first get started?

It all started a mere 2 ½ years ago when a group of people, including four investors, decided to reinstate community gardens that were once available. This vision became a reality when a 4-acre site became available to purchase. Previously a nursery with three defunct greenhouses, the property included a 5,000 square foot building, a home and pole barn for storage of equipment. Our idea was to create a garden, develop a greenhouse, bring food into a kitchen (located in the assembly building) and then teach people about nutrition and cooking.

How were you able to get the organization off the ground?

First of all, Grow Benzie would have never happened without tremendous community support and volunteer labor. I really had no idea how much time would be required to do everything from planning and organization to grant writing and manual labor. I probably spent 60 hours/week for a nine month period last year. And there were many others out there with me, doing everything from picking up cement in the parking lot to planning events.

We also had some early success in raising money through grants. Though I didn’t know this before we got started, most non-profit organizations have to be active for five years before being eligible for grant funds. We are lucky to have received three grants in the first 2 ½ years!

Lastly, we had a successful fundraising event last summer that really raised awareness of our organization and what we were trying to accomplish for the community.

Tell me a little bit more about the grants.

We received one grant from the USDA based on rural community development. We officially “launched” our efforts last summer with a farmer’s market. In order to accomplish this first step, we had to re-route roads for safety and build parking spaces. The USDA grant was specifically to pay for this work.

We also got a grant from Rotary International for the development of the kitchen and first greenhouse. We got a couple of smaller grants, too.

In general, the grant-writing process can be very time consuming and tedious. But we have learned, through some of the ups and downs, that the grant giving process is cyclical. Just because we receive funds one year doesn’t guarantee them for the next. Likewise, if we missed out on an opportunity the first time around, there’s always a second and third chance. Grantors have commitments and their own sets of challenges, too.

What have been your greatest challenges in achieving your stated mission?

The economy has hit this area of Michigan much harder than anyone anticipated. Much of the food we initially grew in our outside gardens supplied local food banks to help fulfill basic needs of citizens in the community. In addition, many of Grow Benzie’s supporters lost their jobs. Life was hard for our volunteers – to donate money or time. The irony is that the need for what we were doing was even greater because of the downturn.

What have been your biggest victories to date?

As I already mentioned, we have a very successful fundraiser last summer – a 2–day festive event that included a silent auction, live auction and dinner. One of our amazing benefactors was able to secure Hosea Roesenberg as the chef at our dinner. Hosea was the Season Five (Bravo Network) Top Chef and won numerous awards while at Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colorado.  Having a famous chef brought more attention to the event and really put our organization on the map.

How were you able to launch the Farmers’ Market successfully?

We tapped into an existing group who had already defined the process, and this helped tremendously. A farmers’ market had already been established in one of the five Benzie county rural communities. We asked their manager if she and her vendors would like to set up a second market on another day of week. It all transpired pretty seamlessly.

What have you learned that you didn’t expect to learn when you got the organization started?

Until you really delve into problems, it’s hard to be aware of the complexity of issues. For example, providing a program doesn’t mean everyone can take advantage of it. Some of the people we most want to help through classes or seminars can’t leave their children because they lack a means for transportation or care for their children. As such, free programs don’t always help people.

What advice would you have for others who might be interested in starting a similar organization in their own community?

Think outside the box and not be limited by what has been done before! Most non-profits carry out extensive research before the organization is actually launched. We did it backwards. We saw the need and jumped in feet first to make an immediate impact on the community. Without tremendous volunteer support and a bank willing to work with us, none of this would have happened.

Seeing is believing. By providing food banks and schools with food, kids in the community are being helped in more ways than one. In today’s culture, there is a disconnect among kids about where food comes from. By composting scraps, growing foods and tasting fresh produce, they have come to better appreciate proper nutrition. This is one example of how small steps can make a big difference.

To help support Grow Benzie, its first cookbook is now available for purchase, Seasonal Harvest Recipes.

Melinda Hinson