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Oaklawn, regional organizations join forces to bolster food access in Albion 

ALBION – In an effort to keep nutritious food on the tables of hundreds of local residents in need, a new partnership has formed between Oaklawn and a coalition of nonprofit organizations.

The goal is to reinforce and augment a food-distribution system formerly overseen by the Albion Food Hub. Oaklawn is to start supervising the program Nov. 1, aiming to increase the number of volunteers involved and the amount of food available. 

“There are families in need who are not able to feed their families because there’s not enough supply,” said Jenna L. Ellis, Oaklawn’s development manager, adding that Oaklawn hopes to help increase the amount of food distributed as well as develop a food pantry at an accessible site during 2021.

Officials for Oaklawn and South Michigan Food Bank agree hundreds of residents of the economically challenged community are at risk, chiefly senior citizens lacking transportation and access to shopping sites during the nationwide coronavirus pandemic.

“The Food Hub has been doing a great job meeting this need with food assistance, and we’re excited to build on that, especially because of the pandemic,” said Kaylynn Hoaglin, Oaklawn’s executive assistant for nursing administration, who is spearheading the supervision transfer.  

“The goal is to have enough, and not turn anyone away,” Hoaglin said. “We’ll be assessing the need, but we don’t know what the numbers are yet.”

Food distribution will continue as usual at the Albion Food Hub at 112 E. Erie St. The current schedule through the end of the year calls for distributions from 5 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 12, 17 and 24, as well as Dec. 10, 15 and 22. As before, available fresh food boxes will be distributed on a first-come basis until gone. 

“You won’t notice any changes and the contents of the boxes will be as before,” Ellis said. “The process will be the same, but the idea is to make the process more efficient and go faster.” The fresh food boxes often contain fruit, eggs, vegetables, bread, milk and meat products, she said. 

Volunteers for South Michigan Food Bank will sort and box fresh food at its Battle Creek distribution center. The boxes then will be delivered to the distribution site in Albion, where volunteers will place boxes in individuals’ vehicles while following pandemic-induced safety guidelines. Some boxes will be delivered to individuals who can’t travel to the site.

Summer Sunnock, the food bank’s advancement director, said the organization intends to provide 250 boxes of fresh food as Oaklawn assumes the supervisory role.

“I can see that number gradually growing,” she added. “There’s a huge need in Albion, and we’ve been working there since 1992. Our team is really excited to start this partnership with Oaklawn. It’s going to help meet that need at a greater level.”

Like many similar organizations nationwide, the regional food bank collects fresh and non-perishable food items through donations, surpluses and specific purchases. With the help of volunteers, the food then is provided without charge to people in need. 

“Albion is what we call a ‘food desert,’ where there is not a lot of access to nutritious food,” Sunnock added. “Because many people there can’t travel long distances to a grocery store, hundreds of people in Albion are struggling with food security.” 

South Michigan Food Bank personnel will work with volunteers and organizers at the Albion site to increase efficiency and maintain compliance with safety precautions during the coronavirus pandemic, Sunnock said.

“We are helping to make this transition as seamless as possible,” she said. “We also are committed to finding those gaps in service to make sure that the areas in need are able to receive the food that is needed. To do that, we’ll be partnering with Oaklawn and collaborating with other members of the community.”

Hoaglin praised the commitment of community organizations and nonprofits that, in addition to Oaklawn and South Michigan Food Bank, continue to fund the operation and provide volunteers. They include the Albion-Homer United Way, the Albion Community Foundation, Albion First United Methodist Church and the Albion Economic Development Corporation.

“The volunteers they already have are amazing, and we want them to stay with us,” Hoaglin said. “We will add some more from the Oaklawn family. Meanwhile, we always welcome anyone who wants to volunteer.” Those wishing to assist may contact Hoaglin at (269) 789-3908.

Oaklawn’s participation stems from its long-term commitment to improving overall community health, Hoaglin and Ellis said. 

“Nutrition is medicine, and it’s important that we provide healthy options,” Ellis said. “We want to be able to supply each family with fresh food, and that would include proper sources of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and protein. This is a wholistic approach to health.” 

Oaklawn has been the chief source of medical services to the Albion community since the closure of Albion Health Services’ Trillium Hospital in 2002. In early 2019, Oaklawn expanded its presence by moving its family-medicine clinic on B Drive North to a more central site at 302 N. Monroe St., and by opening Oaklawn Express Care – Albion at that location.

A recent assessment of Albion patients’ medical records and responses to questionnaires led to Oaklawn’s new involvement in food distribution.

“It was noted that the community felt that food insecurity was their No. 1 concern,” Hoaglin said. “It caught the attention of our chief operating officer, Sherry Thomas-Boyd, that the community needed food. She reached out to the people at the food bank, who educated us that the need was growing.” 

South Michigan Food Bank, founded in 1982, serves an eight-county region, including Calhoun County. More information about the organization is available online at smfoodbank.org.

Oaklawn officials also intend to work with Albion civic and community leaders to relocate the distribution operation eventually to a different building. The goal is to develop a facility where food distribution could continue to residents with limited transportation opportunities, and feature a food pantry where food could be prepared and provided to those in greatest need, Ellis said. 

“For now,” Hoaglin said, “we want to enhance what’s already being done and increase the number of boxes of food that are going out into the community – because the need is there.”