COVID-19 Hunger Heroes Part 1: Heart of West Michigan United Way brings extra Mobile Pantries to Kent County

A bunch of boxes and volunteers surround a Mobile Pantry truck

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, closing jobs and schools, Feeding America West Michigan quickly saw a ripple effect. As neighbors who had never needed food assistance before found themselves facing empty cupboards, and those already facing hunger found it even more difficult to make ends meet, the need for our services grew exponentially.

But just as quickly as the need increased, organizations and neighbors across our service area stepped up to meet it. This blog series highlights some of these hunger heroes. Read the rest of this series here.

Service industry workers were among the hardest-hit by temporary unemployment. Thankfully, Heart of West Michigan United Way sponsored seven Mobile Pantries in Kent County, meant to support service industry workers who had lost their jobs.

Thanks to their support, and the volunteer efforts of masked heroes, these April food distributions each provided between 6,000 and 9,000 meals worth of groceries to between 200 and 300+ families.

Held at Woodland Mall, Ada Bible Church and Grandville Church of Christ, the distributions’ long lines surprised volunteers at first.

“I was surprised at the urgency of the need. People were filling the parking lot at noon for a distribution that began at 5,” said Traci, a local pastor who volunteered at many of the Mobile Pantries.

For safety, the Mobile Pantries followed a drive-thru model, with volunteers wearing masks, maintaining a safe distance between people and loading food into cars with gloved hands.

Three volunteers look at the camera wearing masks and gloves.

This model made it more challenging for volunteers and recipients to interact, but volunteers still heard many stories.

Trish, the volunteer coordinator for Grandville Church’s Mobile Pantries, shared how one neighbor, who had been visiting the church’s traditional food pantry before the crisis, deeply appreciated the Mobile Pantries.

The neighbor lives with her mother and brother, who struggles with a severe case of diabetes. A month before the crisis, she had called the church “asking for help and sounding desperate.” Once the church began hosting Mobile Pantries, Trish shared, this neighbor and her family were “very grateful” to receive food from each one.

“The last time, she said they were down to a few cans of vegetables.”

Food sits in boxes at a Mobile Pantry

Although having to wear masks and keeping social distance was challenging at times – Traci said she missed being able to “share a smile and a kind word of encouragement” – volunteers and neighbors in need alike found moments of solidarity, despite the circumstances.

For example, at one recent distribution, a Spanish speaker helped register families before they received food. Traci explained that this “helped with hospitality and stress” for neighbors who may have otherwise had trouble communicating. She described it as a “beautiful” moment.

“Volunteering with the distribution gave me a way to love people even when we aren’t able to bring our normal ways of comfort to one another,” Traci said.

A bunch of boxes and volunteers surround a Mobile Pantry truck

Another volunteer shared how a number of children would roll down their backseat windows and talk with her, as she stood six feet way. She would try to remember them based on prior conversations or pretty dresses, which they loved.

Coordinators for each of the Mobile Pantries noted how many people were eager to volunteer. Due to crowd concerns, they had to turn many would-be volunteers away, but it was the thought that counted.

Whether they’re volunteering on the front lines, sponsoring Mobile Pantries or simply keeping others safe by staying home, our Kent County neighbors continue to impress us with their kindness and generosity during this very stressful time. No matter what the future holds, we  know we can count on our communities to help us fight hunger wherever – and whenever – it happens.

We are continuing to provide 100+ Mobile Food Pantries per month throughout West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, and are distributing more food than ever. If you or someone you know needs assistance, visit, or call 2-1-1 for help.

To read more from the COVID-19 Hunger Heroes series, click here.

Story written by Communication Assistant Juliana Ludema. Photos courtesy of the Michigan National Guard and Grandville Church of Christ.