The shelves and coolers are filled with fresh fruits, cans of vegetables, granola bars, cartons of milk, frozen meats and snack crackers. There are shopping carts, employees and regular hours of operation.

But this is no ordinary grocery store.

Welcome to Community Food Club, a three-year experiment of sorts, dreamed up by seven social service agencies and underwritten in great part by Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.

It’s a place where members like Maria Favela of Grand Rapids, Michigan, pay $10 a month for a membership that helps support operating costs. The memberships comes with a certain number of points to use for groceries from the store each month. Large families receive more points than small families or individuals.

“Food Club offers the same experience any of us have when we go to the grocery store. It’s about choice. It’s pleasant and inviting,” said Betty Zylstra, executive director of Salvation Army Social Services in Kent County, one of the member agencies.

It’s a far cry from the experience most people have when they visit a food pantry, Zylstra added. At Food Club, members get to make choices and have access to lots of fresh foods. They don’t have to stand in line awaiting a hand out.

Food … and something more

The idea was borne through the collaboration of Salvation Army Social Services, Westminster Presbyterian Church/Downtown Pantry, United Church Outreach Ministry, Feeding America West Michigan, Access of West Michigan, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County and Home Repair Services.

Representatives met for two years before opening Food Club in space owned by Home Repair Services. Several area foundations provided the $400,000 necessary to convert the space into a grocery store. Annual operating costs of about $320,000 are covered by Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, grants from nine other organizations and membership fees.

Because of limited capacity, memberships are available only to those who are referred to Food Club from one of the seven collaborating agencies.

As the program nears the end of its first year, it has provided more than 280,000 pounds of food to 1,215 area households, said David Jacobs, executive director of Home Repair Services. Because the volume is great, Food Club has lots of fresh food, much of it coming from Feeding America West Michigan as well as wholesale distributors.

Encouraging healthy choices

After a family or individual is referred to Food Club, they may purchase a membership for $10 a month. Based on the size of the family, the membership provides anywhere from 60 and 150 points to “spend” throughout the month.

The point system encourages healthy eating, explained former Food Club manager Holly Anderson. For example, a bag of apples or a cantaloupe goes for 1 point while snack foods are 4 points.

And each day, Anderson hears members swapping ideas for how to prepare certain foods or picking up a vegetable they’ve never tried before because their budget can now accommodate something new.

“I had no idea how uplifting, positive and community-oriented this place would be,” Anderson said.

‘Now I get to decide’

“It’s so embarrassing to go to a food pantry and literally have to beg for food,” said Favela, who knows from first-hand experience. A former employee at one of the partner agencies, Favela is a Food Club member who also served on the founding committee.

Favela, who works in a factory, said she used to feel like a failure when she couldn’t afford to provide her daughter with some of her favorite foods.

“Now I get to decide. And we get a whole lot more fresh produce, that’s for sure,” she said as she wheeled her cart to the check-out counter.

Food Club has worked hard to keep a low profile because the need for the services is far greater than its capacity, Jacobs said. The committee will continue to meet, tweak and evaluate the success of Food Club with the hope of growing and replicating it at some point in the future.

“The Food Club has helped some families through a month or two of hard times,” Zylstra said. “Other families have been here since the beginning. It has become their community grocery store, their neighborhood place.”