Grand Rapids Choir Takes On Food Justice

In Kent County alone, 73,230 people are considered food insecure, meaning they lack access at times to have enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. And this weekend, the Grand Rapids Justice Choir is looking to do something about it.

Great Lakes Beacon has previously profiled the choir, which seeks to bring people together through song and similar art for a common community cause.

“In our first year, we wanted to make sure we could find issues that bring people together rather than divide them, and we feel food justice is an issue everyone can get on board with,” said Claire Minnis, artistic director of the Justice Choir. “If you care about people, you care about their access to good food, and like a lot of other issues of injustice, this is one that not everyone sees, so it’s easy to be unaware that it happens.”

Indeed, food justice is about more than just hunger. It’s a movement in response to food insecurity in general, and the inability of some to have access to healthy, locally grown and fresh food.

Statistics from Feeding America found the estimated annual food budget shortfall in 2015 for Kent County – home to Grand Rapids – to be $37.7 million. For Michigan as a whole, Feeding America has found some 1.49 million people are struggling with hunger, and of them 397,070 are children, amounting to one in seven people and one in six children, respectively.

Because the Justice Choir is committed to accessibility in all forms, it doesn’t charge any fee to be part of the choir or attend the concert, slated for this Sunday, March 11. But it will accept freewill donations that in part helps offset concert costs and in other part will go to the designated community partner for the concert – in this case, that will be Urban Roots, a community farm and education center located in Southeast Grand Rapids.

“(The concert) is a great fit for us to bring some awareness to that issue and along with awareness of the problem, awareness of solutions bringing brought in the community, specifically the work Urban Roots is doing with community involvement and food education,” Minnis said.

The choir has, to this point, only had one formal show, an interfaith celebration. Unsure what to expect for it, Minnis said they had played it safe. But ultimately, more than 150 people attended that first concert, which she said was very positive for a first performance, and so she stepped up the plans in anticipation of this concert.

“Our (membership) numbers are up above 20 now, which is great for a first-year choir, and we have some mobile (non-static) advocacy songs – so what you might consider traditional protest songs, call and respond songs,” she explained. “But we’ve also incorporated a section of music that’s specifically folk songs from communities experiencing hunger. Along with that, we have some history (of songs) of how they were created.”

Minnis said concert-goers this weekend can expect a full on experience that includes a variety of different songs, as well as spoken word from Kyd Kane, a Grand Rapids-native performance poet, and some presentations and poetry from Urban Roots.

“We are specifically doing some songs that originated in the American South, talking about segregation after it was illegal, but continuing on in a very broad and systematic way,” Minnis said. “We have songs from the Irish famine, songs from East Africa and the famine of the 1980s there, which has some interesting historical connections to the Irish famine.”

Minnis said the choir tries to make itself accessible to different schedules, so those interested in being a part of it can sing in a single concert or sing for the entire series slated for this year. Each concert requires about eight rehearsals.

However, the choir will also be doing what it calls a “Big Sing for Good Food” in May. On Saturday, May 5, people interested in singing with the choir who cannot make the 8-week commitment for a concert are welcome to come and learn the songs the choir will sing in its mobile advocacy event the next day, the Walk for Good Food, a community event put on by Access of West Michigan.

This weekend’s concert will take place at Trinity United Methodist Church of Grand Rapids, 1100 Lake Drive SE, at 4 p.m. Those interested in attending can RSVP and register for tickets on the group’s event Facebook page, here.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson