After Sandy Whitaker retired from her job with the State of Michigan, she says that in 2015 she decided, “I needed something else. So, I approached the pastor at the New Era Christian Reformed Church and said, ‘There’s this big lot out here, and we have food access issues.’” Initially, the church agreed to establish a community garden on the property, as an outreach for the church to be run under the church’s umbrella. The community garden is still there, and Whitaker reports, “We now have 10 members and volunteers from the church who help with tilling the beds. We started with six beds, and I applied for a grant for another eight beds, so we now have 14 beds. We have a rule that the members don’t sell the products, but if someone has a surplus, they can give it to other members or donate it. Two of the beds are planted specifically to give away the produce, and Weesies donates plants every year and the garden has also received some other grants.” She observes that the garden has become a real community for those who want to garden and don’t have the ability where they are. All the tools are there, and there is an in-ground sprinkler system so no watering is required.
Then, in 2016, Whitaker and the church worked together to start the New Era Farmers Market. Whitaker manages the market, and has assistance from numerous volunteers, including Lisa Fleury, who serves as her assistant grant writer. There is no paid staff. “Starting the community garden and the farmers market helps with food access, as we have a shortage of grocery stores in Oceana County,” she says.
Whitaker got her passion for helping the community from her years of working for the State of Michigan in various programs. She grew up in the DeWitt area, graduating from J.W. Sexton High School in 1971. She thought she wanted to be an interior decorator, but in 1973, she went to work for the state and continued until 2011. Her first job was with child and family services, doing data entry for food stamp programs, and Medicare and Medicaid claims. Then she worked for community health for the state in vital records and with the WIC and substance abuse programs for the rest of her career. Ultimately, she switched from the technology aspect to people contact when she worked for the vendor section and went out to license stores and train staff at stores and health departments, including DHD 10. As Whitaker explains, “All the different jobs I did for the state prepared me for what I’m doing now – applying for grants, state licensing, and all the terminology in state contracts I work with now.”
The farmers market has evolved over the years, adding programs as it went along, and it is currently open June – September, the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month from 4-7 p.m. Vendors come via word of mouth from all around the area, including Spring Lake, Ludington and Hesperia. “They like the atmosphere and specialty programs we have, “Whitaker emphasizes. “Having all the incentive programs for vendors and shoppers is also a win-win, and it looks like there will be over $2,000 reimbursed to vendors from special programs just this year.” Incentives include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Double-Up Food Bucks, Senior Power Produce and Kids Power Produce. In addition, the market offers a story time for children, a playground area, entertainment by local bands and restaurants that serve dinner. Typical attendance per market day is 229, and there are usually about 29 vendors, including craft vendors, some of whom are unique to the New Era Farmers Market.
Funding has come through various grants, including a grant in 2017 from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Fairs (MCACA) to pay bands to play at the market. From 2016 to the present, about $19,000 in grants has been received, including grants from Healthy Life Styles, the Oceana Community Foundation and Great Lakes Energy to support the farmers market programs.
To better serve the community and be better equipped to manage the growth of the market, Whitaker became a certified market manager this year, on-line through Michigan State University. “It took me an afternoon just to figure out how to set up a student account, with me being out of school for so long,” she laughs. “And I did one of the classes while on vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun with palm trees in the background. But the classes were very helpful, letting me know about things I didn’t have in place for our market, such as an emergency evacuation plan, having a ‘legacy binder’ to help someone to follow in my footsteps, and getting ideas for Kids Power Produce activities. It has been a huge resource to me.”
In addition to her work for the farmers market and community garden, Whitaker is a volunteer member of the Oceana County Health Board, which meets monthly to plan for community health issues. “Once community health gets in your blood you can’t retire from it,” she asserts. “You still look at the needs and how you can help fulfill them.”
Whitaker and her husband, Dan, met on a blind date, spent most of their lives near Lansing, and have now been married 46 years, with three children, all of whom are in Michigan. From the time they were dating, they had a goal to move to northern Michigan, but after they bought what they thought would be a summer home in Oceana County in 2011, they moved here and decided they wanted it to be their full-time home.
In retirement, they are enjoying where they live in orchard country between New Era and Shelby, as well as a couple weeks of vacation annually, usually in the Caribbean or Mexico. Sandy keeps fit and has done hydro-fit at Lakeside Rehab and just joined a Tai Chi class at the end of September. Dan is a retired plumber-pipe fitter and is currently rebuilding a Jeep and does welding projects on the side when he is not hunting or fishing. Together they enjoy getting out to socialize with other couples at their weekly Sunday pool league where Whitaker says she does not enter competitions, but loves the game.
Asked what they like about living in Oceana County, Whitaker says, “I love the beach and am a walker. We love the availability of produce like asparagus. We love going for drives. It is absolutely beautiful, and we love the rural atmosphere.”
It is clear that retirement has been a good thing for Whitaker, and her work with the Farmers Market and community garden continue to give her the satisfaction of serving the community by focusing on community health.