Demand for food never higher than in 2013

Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist-December 2013Never in its 33-year history has Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank distributed more food than it did in 2013. Last year, the organization sent out 25.6 million pounds of groceries and household goods — approximately 20 million meals — to communities in 40 Michigan counties, an increase of more than 9 percent over 2012.

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“I’d say it’s good in the [sense] that we’ve had the resources this past year to meet the growing demand in our service area,” said CEO Ken Estelle. But, he continued, “The bad thing is we have a growing demand in our service area.”

According to Feeding America’s last nationwide survey, conducted in 2011, one in seven people is at risk of hunger in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. This year’s surge in demand indicates that the current number may be higher.

And in the coming months?

“All of the indicators we know of today point to an increased demand,” Estelle said.

Over half the increase in Feeding America West Michigan’s 2013 distribution came through its Mobile Food Pantry program, which grew by over 14 percent. Half of that growth was in the southwest counties of Berrien, Cass and Van Buren where grant funding from the Walmart Foundation, among others, helped the Food Bank increase Mobile Pantry distributions by 735,000 pounds.

Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, one of Feeding America West Michigan’s agencies, used that funding to begin hosting Mobile Pantries. On top of that, coordinator Diane Dale explained, Progressive, with help from Second Baptist Church, turned their ad hoc benevolence ministry into a full-fledged food pantry with regular hours.

All told, the church distributed 96,000 meals through the Food Bank in 2013.

Increases in demand weren’t limited to Benton Harbor. Access of West Michigan, which represents a network of pantries in Kent County, estimates its total food services increased 3 percent.

With the state economy on the upswing, it seems counterintuitive that demand would be increasing. Estelle sees two factors at work: limited work opportunities and decreasing public assistance.

“Although the job market is picking up, they’re not the kind of jobs people can live on,” Estelle said. He has talked to many clients at his own church’s Mobile Pantry in Allegan County whose jobs don’t pay enough to cover their basic needs.

Dale sees the same in Benton Harbor. “They take their work check and pay for [utilities, transportation, etc.] and after that they don’t have enough to buy food for their kids.”

This is the classic dilemma of American poverty: Without a job, a client has to turn to food pantries and public assistance; when she finds a job, she loses her public assistance and sometimes winds up with less than she had before; either way, she doesn’t have enough to get by. For many, the work requirements included in the House’s version of the Farm Bill could turn this situation into a true catch-22: by making public assistance available only to those who make too much to qualify for it.

Public assistance has already decreased substantially in the past few months. The extension of long-term unemployment benefits expired with the end of the last congressional session, leaving nearly 44,000 Michiganders without what may have been their only source of income. Food stamp allotments were cut for all recipients back in November with further cuts likely to be included in the next Farm Bill.

Yet the Food Bank’s record-breaking year shows that, with support from food donors and financial supporters, the organization is capable of doing much to combat food insecurity in the region.

Support has already come pouring in to replenish Feeding America West Michigan’s aging fleet, a critical component of its food distribution model. An additional $97,500 is needed to meet the organization’s goal for 2014.

The organization is also seeking new food donors. As growers and manufacturers become more efficient, Estelle explained, they have less surplus food to donate — good news in terms of food waste but a challenge for the Food Bank.

Those interested in joining the effort to solve hunger in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula can help by donating, volunteering, and spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter.

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