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July 25, 2014

Detroit area’s first ‘healthy food bank’ gets to work

MA Foundation aims to fight hunger with nutritious food packs

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Detroit area’s first ‘healthy food bank’ gets to work
Ben Rathbun, of Fraser, executive vice president of the MA Foundation, talks with fellow volunteers Stephanie Lozen, of Shelby Township, the group’s nutritional counselor; Mohammad Abdrabboh, of Allen Park, the group’s founder; Nuzmeya Abdrabboh, of Allen Park; and Emma, Brenna, Elijah and Cady Rathbun, all of Fraser.

METRO DETROIT — Many charities use whatever food they can get their hands on to address the issue of hunger. Unfortunately, donated items and leftovers from stores are often full of unnatural preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup, which inhibits the brain from knowing when the stomach is full. This causes people to still feel hungry after they’ve been fed, which leads to obesity, low energy and a lack of focus.

In recent months, a new charity called the MA Foundation — backed by GNC, the world’s largest retailer of vitamins and supplements — formed to address this problem by feeding Detroit’s hungry the right way.

This means a back-to-basics approach with packs of healthy food, the distribution of 10,000 bottles of water this summer, and taking the time to educate the people they help, with constructive advice that inspires healthier choices.

In June, the MA Foundation had their first fundraiser, in the form of a health expo at Gospel Life Church in Madison Heights. Since then, they’ve become a licensed 501(c)(3) nonprofit and are now in full swing bringing aid to people across metro Detroit.

Their goal is ambitious: To serve more than 100,000 families in one year’s time. They’ve been reaching between 10 and 100 people every other week, depending on their finances at the time, but they’re confident that as awareness grows, other groups will get involved and snowball their efforts.

“There’s a huge niche right now for healthy living, which will filter its way down to the most poor, and as people have a vision for what Detroit can become when they start living healthy,” said Ben Rathbun, executive vice president of the MA Foundation and former pastor at Gospel Life Church in Madison Heights.

He resigned from both Gospel Life and the Church at Madison Heights — a coalition of churches he helped start — so he could focus full-time on the MA Foundation.

“Right now, there’s a vacuum of healthy foods that are available to those in need,” Rathbun said. “We are literally Detroit’s very first healthy food bank.”

About 20 volunteers get together every other week at the GNC location in Southgate. Sometimes, they contribute supplies to the efforts of Gleaners, Forgotten Harvest, and the Hanini Outreach and Community Center in Dearborn, enhancing their offerings.

Since they don’t have their own warehouse yet, where they put everything together depends on where they’re delivering the items. They’ve even assembled them in the backs of vans.

The food is delivered in GNC bags. The hope is to secure more sponsorships and credit sponsors by placing their logos on the bags. So far, Kmart and Kroger have contributed items. The MA Foundation is currently in negotiations with other national, regional and local stores, as well.

Many of the items are paid for out of pocket by Mohammad Abdrabboh, owner of five GNC locations and the mobilizing force behind the MA Foundation. He started the MA Foundation with the belief that when people eat healthy, their dignity is restored, and their quality of life improves.

Recipients are found through contacts in the school districts. The MA Foundation has been prioritizing low-income families with kids to feed. 

The items vary by pricing and availability, but there are always two requirements.  First, the items must be healthy — not always organic, but never processed. Second, there is a focus on offering items or combinations of items people might otherwise not try.

For example, the MA Foundation might pair up broccoli and hummus for a combination that tastes like candy and can get kids hooked on eating healthy. They may pitch in a full pineapple and some bananas for a fruit salad. There’s also the combination of kale and sugar snap peas, a sweet vegetable, and instead of white rice and potatoes, they will include brown rice and sweet potatoes, which are lower in cholesterol.

On top of this, they include a mix of GNC products, like spirullina — a blue-green algae — and multivitamins for men and women. Sometimes, they’ll even throw in protein bars for the kids.  

And they don’t stop there. The foundation hopes to achieve lasting change by sitting down with families at the kitchen table and helping them to understand how they can improve their diet in a way that’s both affordable and appetizing.

Stephanie Lozen is a nutritional counselor who dedicates hours of her job to providing this service for free to those who can’t afford it.

“It’s back to basics — whole fruits and vegetables, stuff you grow in your own backyard,” Lozen said. “People are often overfed but undernourished; they eat a lot of empty calories. A lot of food banks just put a Band-Aid on a problem; they just mask the symptoms but don’t get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is a lack of education and not getting the right food.

“I’m just so excited about the MA Foundation,” Lozen added. “I’ve been saying for years that something like this needed to happen.”

Rathbun said that having their own warehouse for assembly and distribution would only help their efforts. The MA Foundation is eyeing a few blighted properties in Detroit. They’re hoping to acquire one and also get it zoned for urban farming if it’s not already.

“That’s the dream,” Rathbun said. “We think it’s going to become a reality very soon. We just lack the funding right now, which is what we’re working toward.”

Their fundraiser in June, titled “The Healthy Expo 10,” was a huge success and helped raise some money for the cause. However, for their next health expo, they plan to make the event free. Participants will still receive $75 worth of free GNC product, as well as information on exercise, healthy recipes, food samples and more. That will be this fall.

“It’s about awareness right now,” Rathbun said of the event, which hasn’t had its date set but will likely be in early September. “Once their lives are changed, we hope this will translate to more people helping us on a monthly basis.”

In the meantime, the MA Foundation continues on. Right now, they’re in the midst of their latest initiative, “10,000 Bottles of Water.” Just like the name suggests, they are handing out 10,000 water bottles to people across metro Detroit. Kroger donated some, while others are funded out of pocket. The idea is to provide quality water and also educate people about the benefits of drinking water instead of sugary soft drinks.

“It’s been a really great experience. It feels great helping people out,” said Orlando Williams, a GNC employee and MA Foundation volunteer who has helped with the water bottle initiative.

He’s been handing them out at area mosques, at 9 p.m. during the break in fasting for Muslims observing Ramadan.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Ramadan and wanted to see how they did it,” Williams said. “The people we gave water to were really appreciative, and some even tried to give us food. But all we said is, ‘No thanks — we’re just here to help.’

“Water is an important issue, especially around the world, like in Africa, where thousands die each day from not getting the right water,” he added. “Water is good for the skin and good for your heart. It’s good for your overall health. So it’s very important, and I’m very happy Mohammad and Ben are doing this.”

Donations to the MA Foundation are tax-deductible. People can donate by texting the word “Healthy” to 50155; they’ll receive a text asking how much they want to donate. People can also donate online at www.healthyfoodbank.org, or by sending checks to the Southgate GNC, 13725 Eureka Road, Southgate, MI 48195. To volunteer with the group or request aid yourself, text or call (248) 850-0375.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.