HIGHLIGHTS + OTTAWA COUNTY
Meeting highlights—Ottawa Food: just the facts
Published November 22, 2023
Written by Adams
Photography by Simply American
Lisa Uganski, from the Ottawa County Department of Public Health, showed up at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, November 21, 2023. Inadvertently, she shed the light of truth on what Ottawa Food is and why two seasonal programs suddenly are suspended.
Attending his first board meeting as the new Deputy Director, Ben Wetmore presented facts about Ottawa Food, countering the misinformation local media continues to dole out to the Ottawa County citizens.
Ottawa County Board of Commissioners
Tuesday, November 21, 2023
Gleaning Program And Senior Project Fresh
On November 13, 2023, Fox 17 interviewed Ottawa Food Advisory Board member Christian Kleinjans.
In the article, Kleinjans spoke about the suspension of the Ottawa Food Gleaning program and the Senior Project Fresh program, claiming both had to be suspended because of budget cuts.
During the November 21, 2023 Board of Commissioners meeting, the Board questioned Lisa Uganski about these two programs.
Uganski responded with the following:
• The Gleaning program collects excess fresh foods from farms and farmers markets in order to provide for those in need
• The Gleaning program does not operate during the winter
• The Senior Project Fresh program also is seasonal. The project wraps up on October 31st and consumers do not use the vouchers during the winter
• The Senior Project Fresh and Gleaning programs start back up near midyear. Planning, preparation, and promotion start in May/June. Programs really ramp up in August/September.
• The Senior Project Fresh vouchers come from the state—not county—funds. This program could continue with or without county funds.
So, both programs that Ottawa Food has suspended are seasonal and not presently active.
Requests And Process Are Hard To Follow
The Board was clear during the budget process, telling the Health Department that they “want to prioritize this program [Ottawa Food],” and also, “If you need funding, please come back and we will prioritize this.”
With these programs so vital and critical, did the Health Department do all it could do to prioritize the program?
Facts related to the situation:
• Neither Uganski, Ottawa Food, nor the Health Department ever approached the Board with a financial action request as had been done historically. Instead, the Health Department sent information informally to Commissioner Jacob Bonnema last week, without communicating with the Chair of the Finance Committee or the Board Chair.
• Chair Joe Moss specifically asked Uganski if anyone had come back to the Finance Committee once figures had been determined, after the budget had been finalized. Uganski answered, “No.”
• It was mentioned multiple times that the Health Department was given a direct request to come back to the Board if there was a need
• Uganski was asked at previous meetings to produce a monetary number that she would need to continue the programs. During those meetings she didn’t know the number, claiming that providing a number was complicated. Having that total number now, the next step—which is the correct process—would be to submit an action request to the Finance Committee.
Ottawa Food: Just The Facts
Attending his first board meeting as the new Deputy Director, Ben Wetmore filled in for Administrator John Gibbs. Wetmore gathered and passed out facts and information on Ottawa Food, explaining that a lot of the misinformation has come from the media.
Wetmore clarified the following:
• The core groups connected to the Ottawa County Food Advisory Board are Community Action House, Community SPOKE, and MSU Extension
• Ottawa County has given significant funding to all of these groups over the past two years
• On December 2, 2022, Ottawa County granted $486,000 in ARPA funds to Community Action House for use over three years—specifically, to manage the Ottawa Food program, including three full time staff
• Uganski disputed the previous fact, but Moss read the vendor service agreement and the proposal presented to the previous Board for ARPA funds
• Community SPOKE was given $70,000 in 2022 and $45,000 in 2023
• Community SPOKE helps to coordinate the actions of local non-profits to help meet the needs of the community
• MSU Extension was given $264,000 in October 2022 and is asking for $272,000 in November 2023
• Christian Kleinjans is the MSU Extension employee who sits on the Ottawa Advisory Board and is also the member who was interviewed by Fox 17 about the suspension of the seasonal services
• Uganski claims that 70% of the organizations voted to pause Ottawa Food, but doesn’t know how many of the 38 organizations even chose to vote
• The combined annual revenue of the 38 organizations that comprise the Ottawa Food collaborative is more than $220 million, yet the collaborative is unable to fund a full time staffer for the critical services of Ottawa Food
The previous Board gave Ottawa Food $486,000 in ARPA funds, and since October 2022, these core groups in Ottawa Food leadership positions have been given a total of nearly $1 million by the County.
With 38 organizations receiving a total combined annual revenue of $220 million, why does Ottawa Food not have enough resources to fund one full time employee?
“I’m getting a little concerned here that we are funding organizations to do things that are not being done,” Vice Chair Sylvia Rhodea said. “Having food for our people is really important and it is not a political game.”
Rhodea mentioned that it may be time to look deep into these programs and see if they would better fit under a department other than the Health Department. She is open to looking at the possibility of creating a Department of Family Impact.
Should there be better oversight of the Ottawa County food programs? Should the programs be led by someone who will follow proper process and approach the Board when there is a concern?
As Chair Moss told Uganski, “If you want County funds, taxpayer dollars, you have to come back to the Board.”
The local activist media will not fund the programs.