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Grillin' For Good

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Food Gatherers' fund-raiser picnic helps fight hunger



If humble beginnings count for anything on the road to success, Grillin’ for Food Gatherers has one to relate.

What began in 1989 with about 200 people on the patio of Zingerman’s Deli has grown into an event attended by more than 1,000 guests.

The first Grillin’ raised $7,000; last year’s event boosted Food Gatherers by more than $90,000.

In the beginning, three sponsoring businesses made monetary contributions. Today, that number has risen to 60, with about 100 other businesses making contributions of time, resources, etc.

So you could say Grillin’ for Food Gatherers is one volunteer-driven event that’s come a long way in a short time.

The 7th annual Grillin’ is set for June 9 from 4-8 p.m. at 1731 Dhu Varren Road in Ann Arbor.

Billed as a community picnic, the event benefits the nonprofit food rescue program serving Washtenaw County. Fully one-third of Food Gatherers’ $300,000 annual budget comes from Grillin’; the other two-thirds comes from grants and individual contributions.

The driving force behind Grillin’ is Amy McCarty, a University of Michigan graduate who just finished law school in Chicago. As coordinator of Grillin', McCarty stages the entire event and supervises a corps of 150 volunteers.

Her story is one of humble beginnings, too. She started her Grillin’ career as a voIunteer four years ago, picking up trash.

Now she’s a "major boost to the staff, giving us a shot of energy, enthusiasm and leadership,” according to Eileen Spring, director of Food Gatherers.

Volunteers working the event serve the food, grill the sausages and chicken, play games with kids, staff the art tent and generally assist paying guests.

The proceeds of every Grillin’ ticket sold go toward hunger relief. Food Gatherers links more than 120 food businesses with 84 community agencies - such as the Ann Arbor Hunger Coalition - providing food to people who need it.

Thanks to a fine support network and its corps of volunteers, Food Gatherers retrieves and distributes more than 2 tons of food each day. About 200 volunteers do the daily food runs and make sure Food Gatherers’ service is uninterrupted.

Since its birth in 1988, more than 3 million pounds of food that would otherwise have gone to waste have been delivered free of charge to thousands of people in Washtenaw County.

Food Gatherers operates a fleet of 4 refrigerated vehicles, 3 trucks and a van. They’ve expanded operations to include a program in Manchester.

As for the volunteers, they come from all walks of life. One person tells another, and so it grows. And “once a Food Gatherer, always a Food Gatherer," says Spring.

But back to Grillin.’ It takes a lot to transform the warehouse on Dhu Varren into a community picnic venue. Fields are mowed. The barn is cleared. Tents are set up. Port-o-johns are trucked in and sited. The donations of 15 area restaurants and more than 50 other businesses must be coordinated. Tickets have to be sold.

That’s where McCarty comes in. Preparation - the setting up and taking down - consume a few weeks. What folks see on June 9 for a few hours is just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s fun bringing people together in a sharing event,” says McCarty. “People feel such an ownership (of the event). It’s just an amazing example of community spirit.”

Not just the food but the music is donated too: George Bedard and the Kingpins, and Nite Flight will perform. For kids, there will be an opportunity to be creative at the ArtVentures Festival Workshop.

Tickets are $50 for adults and $10 for kids under 13; the tax deductible portion of the tickets is $45 and $8. Tickets may be purchased by calling 761-2796 or by stopping by Zingerman’s Deli or Zingerman’s Practical Produce in Kerrytown.

Food Gatherers was recently named to a first place award for nonprofit excellence by NEW Center, Inc. Food Gatherers was cited for “innovative use of resources and imaginative use of volunteers.”