The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is bursting with natural beauty, but amidst the stunning scenery, a large portion of the U.P.’s population live in extremely rural areas and face high rates of poverty and food insecurity. This is true for most rural areas throughout the U.S. Often, families are cut off from community resources and surviving can be very difficult. According to Feeding America’s website, “2.7 million rural households face hunger. Three-quarters of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas.”
To get a better picture of what rural living is like for individuals and families living in the U.P., a couple members of the Feeding America West Michigan staff traveled to the U.P. to see their reality for ourselves. We visited Newberry, which is a tiny town far removed from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities and accessible by winding, 2-lane roads through dense forest. We were shocked to discover how sparse the population density was. Many are so isolated that they need to travel an hour or more just to reach necessary amenities like a grocery store, or hospital. Shopping malls are basically nonexistent in most areas of the U.P. To put this distance into perspective, there is only one high school in all of Luce county, which spans 1912 square miles. Most kids must travel long distances just to attend school.
To help combat the challenges of rural living, community resources come together every year to host a Project Homeless Connect event in Newberry. The goal of the event is to reach as many local residents as possible in order to ease the hardships of living in the rural U.P.
The hosting agency for this event, the Diane Peppler Resource Center (a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter), partners with Feeding America West Michigan and other local service organizations to bring people together to fight homelessness, hunger, and a lack of resources. The combined effort between Feeding America West Michigan and our partners in the U.P. reach numerous rural families each year.
At the event, a meal is provided for anyone who attends. There are also tables of donated clothing and winter attire, piles of school supplies, personal hygiene items, and some home essentials. In addition, with the help of the Luce County Link (the youth and community resource center), they are able to provide a Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Pantry. All of these resources are crucial to families who would otherwise struggle to feed, clothe, and provide for their own needs.
Not all the resources they provide, however, are material things. Jessica Roberts, the event coordinator, also brings together local human service organizations in an effort to make the resources more accessible to community members in need. These organizations provide a range of services, from affordable housing, to health and wellness services, to employment resources and more. Susan Prell, Executive Director at the United Way of the eastern U.P. said “I think it’s important to pull together resources and have them in one spot for those who really don’t know where to turn. I did registration and I was overwhelmed with the need. It’s not just ‘oh, I needed some food’ it’s a REAL need.
There are similar events in Chippewa and Mackinaw counties each year. Project Homeless Connect is necessary and extends to people much further than the small town of Newberry. The annual event provides resources for anyone in Luce County who might need them, if they can make the trip.
Unfortunately, many people who would benefit from an event like Project Homeless Connect simply don’t have the means or resources to attend. Due to the extreme rurality of the region, lack of transportation options, extreme weather conditions, and a myriad of other barriers, it is difficult for an event like this to reach everyone in need. With these barriers in place, many community members in the Upper Peninsula are forced to live with a lack of essential commodities. Many have left the U.P. because of the lack of opportunities, but the people that remain, more often than not, are seriously struggling. We need to find a way to reach those still in need.
This event makes an impact in providing the essentials to residents of Luce County, but so many in need remain untouched. Feeding America West Michigan is grateful to be able to provide food for our neighbors in the U.P. who really need it in partnership with generous, local community partners.
Food insecurity is the reality of many; our partnering agencies see that and are making an effort to help. Hunger is a predominant issue in rural areas across the country. According to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” study, “Rural counties make up 63% of all U.S counties, but account for 76% of counties with food-insecurity rates that rank in the top 10% of all counties.” Many go without food simply because they don’t have the means to access it. This is a widespread issue that needs to be addressed.
Story written by Molly Kooi, Communications Intern