COVID-19 Hunger Heroes Part 3: Fremont Area Community Foundation helps the food bank fight hunger year-round, increases support during the pandemic

A volunteer's shirt says "because healthy and sustainable communities are built, not found."

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.

West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula boast a diversity of landscapes – cornfields, forests, flatlands and in some rural counties like Newaygo, visitors are welcomed by rolling hills and vast orchards.

Newaygo County’s rurality means many residents face unique challenges, even without a global pandemic. Many people in this region work in the tourism, manufacturing and agricultural industries, which have suffered greatly due to COVID-19. Typically, 1 in 7 Newaygo neighbors faces hunger, but now, 1 in 5 is projected to face hunger this year, according to the Feeding America National Organization. Children are even more at risk. It’s estimated that 2,860 children in the county will face hunger this year – roughly a thousand more than last year.

Boxes filled with watermelon and other items wait to be given out.

Feeding America West Michigan is proud to provide food to many partner agencies working to end hunger in Newaygo County. We would not be able to serve the number of agencies we do if it were not for the support of the Fremont Area Community Foundation (FACF). Their generous sponsorship brings nearly 100 Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Pantries to Newaygo County each year. In addition, they enable us to provide a variety of food to many local traditional pantries year-round.

In response to Michigan’s unemployment rate rising to 22.7 percent in April, FACF chose to fund 16 additional Mobile Pantries in the four counties they and their geographic affiliates serve (Newaygo, Osceola, Mecosta and Lake). In the stories below, we’ll learn about a few of the organizations the FACF helps us support, and meet neighbors receiving food during this challenging time.

At TrueNorth Community Services, Mobile Pantry attendance doubles

Normally, TrueNorth Community Services hosts one Mobile Pantry per month – providing a reliable source of healthy food for neighbors in need. During the pandemic, thanks in part to the FACF, they’ve doubled their efforts by providing two Mobile Pantries per month.

Each of these drive-thru distributions has seen around 250 families attend – more than double the usual attendance.

Two ladies smile out of a car as they wait to receive food.

Julie and Donna are two friends who were among May’s attendees. Julie is retired and relies on disability income, so she has attended the distributions for a while. Donna, on the other hand, lost her job building yachts due to the pandemic. For the past two months, she too has relied on these Mobile Pantries for groceries. The resource has been especially helpful since she only just received her stimulus check at the end of May.

“It’s a blessing,” Donna said.

Many other neighbors at this distribution face similar circumstances.

As Louanne and her daughter waited in their car for the distribution to begin, she shared how her husband was able to return to work in early May, but soon became sick. Now, he is off work again until he’s symptom-free for 10 days.

“We don’t qualify for food stamps, and I’m disabled, so his was the only income,” she said.

Louanne’s 75-year-old father has been living with her family since the start of the pandemic, making it even more difficult to keep enough food on the table.

Ed attended the Mobile Pantry with two of his lifelong friends – all retired and living on fixed incomes.

“Food costs keep going up at the store,” he said. “But when you’re retired, you have a fixed income and that doesn’t go up. This helps take the edge off.”

A volunteer's shirt says "because healthy and sustainable communities are built, not found."

In addition to hosting Mobile Pantries, TrueNorth runs a traditional pantry – just two of their 80 total programs. Thanks in part once again to the FACF, Feeding America West Michigan helps stock the pantry’s shelves. Lately, TrueNorth has been delivering food to seniors in need who don’t have transportation or are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

The nonprofit had to let all of their volunteers go for safety measures, which means that, instead, many staff members pitch in to load cars at the Mobile Pantries.

“It’s good to know we’ve made a difference in someone’s life,” said Jennifer, TrueNorth’s nutrition and senior services coordinator. “When we see that they’re appreciative and that we made an impact for them for something as simple as ‘my kids really liked the apples,’ that means a lot.”

At Love INC Newaygo, love continues despite challenges

Love INC is one of many traditional pantries we partner with in Newaygo County. Without support from the FACF, we couldn’t provide a diverse variety of food to their pantry year-round.

During the pandemic, disruptions to the food supply chain have made it challenging for us to keep enough variety in our warehouse. Thankfully, this has recently improved, and Love INC has plenty of food to serve neighbors.

“Feeding America West Michigan has gotten so much to choose from right now that we’re able to give extra and above what we normally do,” Tracy said.

A variety of shelf stable food and meat wait to be given out.

Usually, their pantry is modeled after a grocery store. Neighbors can browse the pantry and choose items as if they are shopping. Now, these neighbors drive up and receive pre-packaged boxes of food – although the pantry staff has done their best to provide as much “client choice” as possible. For example, asking clients if they prefer pistachios or peanuts.

Although things are starting to improve in some ways, in late May, Tracy, the pantry’s director, noted she’s seen a “new kind of desperation” among neighbors. As the weather has begun to warm up, it’s harder than ever to stray from usual routines – especially for seniors who may already feel isolated from friends and family.

Love INC staff counteracts this by showing care and kindness toward each neighbor who drives up to receive food. Neighbors leave with full boxes of food and a bit more hope because of an encouraging word or smile shared by an employee.

Theresa, a grandma to seven, first began coming to Love INC after her divorce, when her two children were still teenagers.

“When you go through divorce, you’re stuck with one income. Divorce is devastating enough to begin with – and then to not have enough money to buy the food you need [is even more of a challenge].”

Theresa and her grandson stand in front of their car after receiving food.

Today, Theresa is disabled and lives on a fixed income. The pandemic has made it more challenging for her to feed her grandkids when they visit, including Adam, age 7, who often stays with his grandma for homework help.

“This one likes oatmeal,” Theresa said, “so it’s nice that they have instant oatmeal.”

Ripple effects from FACF’s efforts to end hunger can be seen across Newaygo County. Whether at traditional or Mobile Pantries, this support travels far to provide neighbors the food they need to make it through challenging times.

Story written by Communication Assistant Juliana Ludema.