Grace & Groceries 2: What’s the real potential in your community?

2 Detroit skyline THIS WEEK, our guest writer is Lynne Meredith Schreiber, a community innovator whose stories describe a feeding program that may interest you wherever you live. (Read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

BY THE GRACE OF A GROCER, Part 2
By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

2 Fresh fish at market How much do you know about the reach and potential of your community institutions? This next part of the story shows how surprising connections can be made. Read today’s story and then, please, respond to today’s question …
    In one recent month, Grace Groceries collected more than $8,000 in checks and bills of small denomination from residents of more than 30 communities around Detroit. No questions asked, no strings attached, no income requirements, no proof of need. Just a what-can-we-do-to-help attempt to right the wrong of a city crumbling under the dissolution of long-held anchor industries.
    Grace Groceries was the brainchild of a devoted church member named Alan Adler and the open-mindedness of Hillers’ Markets CEO Jim Hiller. Through my company, Your People LLC, I work with businesses like Hiller’s to create meaningful community-corporate connections.
    In February, Alan Adler asked if my client, Hiller’s Markets, would be interested in partnering in a unique effort to help people afford good food through the recession.
    I had no idea what he was talking about nor any clue about the impact and reach of Ward Church. Although I grew up in a Jewish synagogue with more than 10,000 members, it had been years since I belonged to such a large congregation. And, I knew nothing about the community of evangelical Christians.
    When I explained Alan’s request to Jim Hiller, he said quickly, “Of course we want to partner with Ward Church.” He explained its prominence and reach, its leaders’ and members’ sincere desire to create connections and do good for as many as possible.
    Ward Church is driven by a mission of “loving God passionately, serving others joyfully, and sharing faith with people across the street and around the world.” Founded in 1956, it serves 2,800 members and families. Around a round glass table in a quiet conference room at the Hiller’s corporate offices, I listened to the earnest vision of Ward members and the respectful response of Hiller’s grocery buyers. The program would make available high-quality grocery items from a set monthly menu at a flat rate of $30 per box. To do this, the grocery buyers signed away any profit these items might generate – they participate fully, with honest hearts, selling the items at cost plus labor.
    Hiller’s Markets is a for-profit grocery company started in 1941 in Detroit by Sid Hiller, Jim Hiller’s father. The company grew to include grocery stores in outlying suburbs and now is the local leading purveyor of high-quality, service-and-selection food items from the very basic to the exceptional and gourmet. Hiller owns and operates seven stores, serving 65,000 shoppers weekly; the company has been led by Jim Hiller since the 1980s. It’s a far cry from buy-everything-here superstores and more special and across-the-board than competing grocery companies.
    In an era of fierce competition, a company is only as good as its desire to offer authenticity alongside quality products and competitive prices. Once, before the Passover holiday, Jim Hiller sat on the floor of one of his stores with a frazzled shopper, listening to the shopper’s plaintive tale of searching for the right ingredients for her mother-in-law’s gefilte fish recipe. The recipe called for six different kinds of fresh fish; Hiller’s sold five of them. Knowing the shopper’s turmoil was the result of stressful family relationships rather than dissatisfaction with the grocery, Hiller called a fishmonger friend in New York and flew in the requested sixth type of fish.
    At 2 a.m. most nights, Hiller is awake at his laptop, answering shopper emails. That attention to detail sets Hiller’s apart from other groceries—from other businesses, really. In an era of tough cuts and huge loss, it seems superfluous to care too much. But it’s woven into the fabric of the Hiller company. The company partners with hundreds of churches, synagogues, schools and community groups through its thriving Scrip program and donates to a huge number of causes.
    Eventually, Hiller asked me to create a Jewish incarnation of the Grace Groceries effort. I turned to Hiller’s long-time friend and rabbi, Daniel Syme, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, the oldest Reform Jewish congregation in Michigan. Mitzvah Meals launched in June, mirroring the Ward effort except to eliminate pork and shellfish from the menu in respect of Jewish dietary laws.
    Today, I’ve described the reach of several community institutions in our part of the country. I grew up in this area and some of this surprised me as I learned about it.

    What are the most helpful institutions in your area?
    What institutions do you trust?
    What ones do you wish would do more in the community?

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