By: Jodie Solari
A Win-Win. A Blessing. Thankful.
Regardless of who you talk to about the Our Town Meal Distribution Program – restaurant owners, program partners or residents – these are the sentiments heard over and over again.
Crazy Cowboy Owner says “Sign Me Up”
Liz Wiginton, owner of The Crazy Cowboy, said her reaction to hearing about the program was, “Sign me up!” It was a win-win for the area and her staff, “We had been closed for so long in 2020, this was a great opportunity to help downtown. And it was a guarantee for us that all my workers could have a guaranteed job for that whole five weeks.”
When the pandemic started, Wiginton found a way to give back and keep her restaurant open. “I sell masks, I’ve made over 2,000 masks.” She donated the first 1,000 masks to local nurses in March of 2020. “At that time there were no masks, I was just doing my part and helping where I could.” She used the money from the masks she did sell to buy more material. She’s still making masks and donating them to schools, “If the need is there, I’m still going to continue to do it,” Wiginton said. To help support her staff during the pandemic Wiginton also sold Crazy Cowboy gear – t-shirts, tumblers, sweatshirts and more – which helped keep them afloat. She has a booth full of masks, shirts and other items on display in the restaurant.
This wasn’t the only way Wiginton and staff had to adapt. With indoor seating closed, they had to find additional ways to make money offering take out. “Being able to adapt is so huge,” she said. In an effort to increase sales they started offering margaritas and bottled beers to go. “We are known for margaritas – we have 14 different flavors of margaritas – you can get them on the rocks, you can get them frozen and now you can even get them to go,” said Wiginton.
Crazy Cowboy will be participating in the second phase of the Meal Distribution program, starting March 8. They will be preparing three meals: two tacos with rice and beans, vegetarian quesadillas and rice and a side salad with chicken.
Meal Distribution Program Motivates Shakanna Blake for Tomorrow
Shakanna Blake, owner of KeniKakes Catering and part owner of Sister-Sister Soul Food Café, is excited to be part of the Our Town Meal Distribution program. And much like Wiginton of The Crazy Cowboy, she sees it as a win-win for her and the community. “Not only are we able to serve food to the community but these are people that can now tell their family members, that can tell their co-workers, ‘Hey, we tried this food’ and it’s just going to help us gain back that momentum,” she said.
Blake said the uncertainty caused by the pandemic pushed her to get creative. “We had to get innovative and that’s why I think we’re still here and we’re still relevant; because we just kind of rolled with the punches,” said Blake. “We get knocked down and we think of something else and we get back up. And that’s what makes this whole community and the small businesses in Jackson unique. We didn’t fold, we continued to persevere, we’re still here,” she said.
Blake is thankful for Consumers Energy and the Our Town Meal Distribution program. “It literally brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “When this happened, they really stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We’re going to be very intentional about what we do and where our money goes’, and I appreciate them for not leaving the little man out. To take a huge corporation like Consumers Energy to say, ‘We didn’t forget about you, we see you, we appreciate what you’re doing,’ that means more than words can express.”
And Blake is proud to be part of the program. “It helps me sleep at night and then it helps me to get up and be motivated about tomorrow,” she said. And she credits Consumers Energy for helping keep small businesses running during the pandemic. “Consumers has really come through between the grants and everything else they’ve provided. Some people wouldn’t have made it. Literally doors would have been closed. Mine too.”
So, what did Blake do to keep going through the tough times? “I cater,” she said. “Because people couldn’t have the big events and the big venue, I did backyard barn weddings all summer long.” Blake said her schedule is booked until October of this year. She credits customer service for their continued success. “Everybody wanted good food, quality service and customer service – that’s really what kept us here. No matter how we were feeling – down in the dumps or whatever we were going through – we continued to smile, we continued to encourage, and we continued to push through.”
Blake is looking forward to the community benefiting from her meals, “Of course we want to keep the cost down for these meals, but that doesn’t mean they have to lack in quality or flavor so we are excited about being able to give them our roasted chicken and sautéed vegetables,” she said.
Despite everything, Blake still manages to remain positive. She mentioned that COVID is what helped bring her and Marie Fletcher, her godmother, together as business partners. She has since closed her original KeniKakes location and is now working out of the Sister-Sister Soul Food Café location on Martin Luther King Dr.
“This is me. This is us. This is our community,” said Blake. “This is where my daughter is growing up and I want her to see these things and be able to carry them on too. It’s not always about money, the money will come if your heart is right and that’s where we are. We want to do the right thing.”
Meal Distribution Day
Hours before the cars lined up, volunteers gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center to get ready for the expected crowd that would soon be driving up to get their free meals, thanks to the Our Town Meal Distribution program. As restaurants and caterers pulled up, volunteers stood ready to help unload and prepare the tables for distribution.
Antonio Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center Director said distributing the meals at the MLK Recreation Center, located on Jackson’s southside, was intentional. The area is considered a “food desert” because there isn’t a grocery store nearby, restricting access to healthy food options – especially for residents who do not have transportation. When we talked to Parker, they only had one distribution day under their belts, but it had been a success. “When we did this on Monday you could see the smiles on faces that people were so relieved to honestly just have food. They were just saying thank you and were just really grateful to have a basic dinner for that night. I can only just imagine what this program is going to do over the next 10 weeks,” he said.
So, what will happen over the next couple months? Currently, select restaurants are providing 1,250 meals for the distributions which take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the MLK Center. After the initial five weeks, a second set of restaurants (which include Sister-Sister Soul Food Café and The Crazy Cowboy) will provide meals for the remaining five weeks of the program.
Parker is thankful for the role Consumers Energy played in launching the program. “Consumers has been, in my opinion, one of the backbones of the community for a very long time, and into the future.”
He said that working together is the key to continued success – not only in tough times, but at all times. “Let’s continue to support our community, and let’s continue to pull together especially during this time but all times, we don’t have to always be together when times are tough – let’s be together no matter what,” said Parker.
They have a quote in the Center from Martin Luther King that says, “Life’s most urgent question is what are you doing for others.” I think Consumers speaks to that, they said, ‘okay, we’re not going to wait, what are we going to do for others?’ and that’s what they did.”
Steve Castle, CEO for Jackson Interfaith Shelter talked about the importance of meal security for residents. Like Parker, he referred to the southside as a food desert, “If you don’t have transportation, you can’t locally get food, especially fruits and veggies and healthy options,” said Castle. “The options to get healthy, nutritious, prepared meals by local restaurants is a huge blessing for a lot of people in the community.”
Castle is thankful for Consumers Energy’s leadership, “When it comes to things surrounding needs, they are the first ones to jump in and lead by example,” he said. “I think a lot of times other places are waiting to see who’s going to first dive in, who’s going to put their money where their mouth is and it’s a huge blessing when someone like Consumers steps up; and a lot of times the others start to follow after they’ve led and that’s what’s happened in this situation.”
He also talked about the stress that can be caused for families when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “Whenever you want to move forward in life there are the basic needs – you need food and you need sleep and if you’re spending all your time figuring how to get food…you’re not going to be doing homework or applying for jobs. Alleviating that need and being able to quickly and conveniently snag some food frees up your time to be able to work on the next steps to help take care of your family,” said Castle.
When we talked to resident Lionel Jackson, we found this was the case for him and his family. With nine children at home doing virtual learning, times have been tough for Jackson. Knowing he can get meals for his kids is very helpful. Since the kids are at home, he isn’t able to work first shift so now he takes any work he can to get by, “I have to find side jobs, I work on cars, I work on houses…anything I can do just to make ends meet.”
He said the situation has given him hope. “We can still stick together,” he said. “There’s still hope, through the hard times we still have people to lean on. A lot of people say what they’ll do when things go bad, but to see it done and to walk up and they are helping you…that’s a blessing.”
Mindy Bradish Orta, Community Affairs Area Manager for Consumers Energy talked about how the program got started, “Consumers Energy really wanted to do something to help small businesses during the pandemic,” she said. “And then we saw this program out of Vermont where the nonprofit was hiring restaurants to provide meals that were then given away…we looked at it and decided this was something we could do here.” Brandish Orta hopes the program will relieve stress for families and she also noted the comradery the program has inspired, “To get out and to see people smile and to help people – from the volunteers to those getting meals to the restaurants – the enthusiasm is tangible.”
The Our Town program began on Feb. 1 and will run for 10 weeks. Meals are distributed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, 1107 Adrian St., from 4 to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Meals are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Community members and restaurants interested in the program can learn more at cityofjackson.org/ourtown.
Learn more about the effort and watch the magic happen here: