Associate professor leads effort to save local restaurants, support front-line workers in pandemic

Contact: Erin Flynn
Director of Nursing Jessica Slates displays a plate of donated food.

Adam Strong-Morse, right, delivers food to Sindecuse Health Center.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A simple social media invitation has blossomed into a nonprofit helping the heroes of the pandemic in West Michigan, and demand is growing by the day. Feed the Fight Kalamazoo is ramping up efforts to deliver meals to front-line health care workers around the city amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and epidemic orders enacted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

To date, the organization has raised more than $60,000 to deliver more than 6,000 meals. It's an impressive feat for an initiative that started eight months ago when a Western Michigan University associate professor was invited to join a Facebook group for a Feed the Fight chapter in Durham, North Carolina.

Director of Nursing Jessica Slates hands out the donated meals at Sindecuse Health Center.

"The premise was a pretty easy one. Raise money, buy meals, deliver them to front-line health care responders," says Dr. Sally Hadden, who teaches history and is also the department's director of graduate studies. "It's a three birds, one stone kind of thing. You help people who are sitting at home wondering how they can be supportive without actually going outside and compromising their health, you help the restaurants and you help the people who are out there on the front lines with COVID-19 every single day."

Initially setting out to find a similar group to support locally, Hadden soon determined it didn't exist. So, she called her friends Jodi Hope Michaels, executive director of Colleagues International, and Adam Strong-Morse, a local entrepreneur, and got to work creating a Feed the Fight chapter in Kalamazoo. The team tapped into its networks and within a week was pulling in donations and planning its first deliveries.

"A number of different groups within our organization are doing a number of different things and all pulling together," Hadden says, listing everything from restaurant recruitment and fundraising to food delivery as cogs in the machine she and her team have built. "It's been a very amazing time."

Hadden also enlisted public history graduate student Tre Goodhue to help with social media and graphic design after graduation in April. The opportunity gave him purpose, he says, in a time where he was looking for a way to give back.

"At the beginning, when everything started to shut down, restaurant workers had to be furloughed or laid off, and those who were furloughed had to worry if they were going to have a job to come back to. On top of that, our health care workers in Kalamazoo had been working around the clock treating COVID-19 patients, testing patients, on top of their normal duties to the community. So, when Sally reached out to me about this organization, I thought it was just a fantastic idea,"  says Goodhue. In just a few months, more than 70 volunteers had come on board, helping facilitate deliveries to local hospitals, ambulance crews, public safety stations and doctor's offices from some 80 local businesses and restaurants. "The rate at which this grew was just astounding."

The Family Health Center honored Feed the Fight Kalamazoo among its Healthcare Heroes at its virtual gala in late October, calling the group's work "nothing short of amazing."

A life EMS worker carries a box of donated cheesecake.

"When so many other individuals went to shelter in place on the governor's order, you immediately went to work and thought, 'How can you support your communities and particularly the essential workers on the front line?'" Family Health Center CEO Denise Crawford said when presenting the award. Over a 10-week period, Feed the Fight delivered more than 3,000 meals to employees at her facility. "It let them know that the community was with them, that the community cared, and despite the fact that we continued to stay open and provided necessary essential health care services, that there were others outside who were also right there along with us ensuring that we continued to have care and compassion."

Goodhue says it's a testament to the Kalamazoo community that so many people have been willing to step up and help out. Hadden agrees.

"For folks who have to stand there and do it every single day, whether they're processing labs or holding somebody's hands, it's just gotta be awful," she says. "This is a way for community members to say, 'We get how dreadful this is, we know what sacrifices you're making in your family life and your personal life to take care of us all.' This is the least we can do."

Feed the Fight Kalamazoo depends on donations and volunteers to continue serving the critical needs of the community. Learn more about getting involved on the organization's website.

"We have so much to be thankful for in our community," adds Michaels. "Not the least, the tremendous solidarity that Kalamazoo residents can show for one another and the desire to come together to protect our public health and come out stronger together on the other side."

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