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.
The pandemic has created the perfect storm for Feeding America West Michigan – higher demand, reduced food donations and plenty of changes to our operating model.
During this time, our partner agencies have increased their food orders by 55 percent, revealing an increased need among neighbors. Meanwhile, the food supply chain has turned upside down. Usually, food retailers and manufacturers carry just enough stock to meet demand. When more people began grocery shopping and demand spiked, many canned good aisles remained bare. Other parts of the food supply chain manufacture items meant for the restaurant industry – like 5 gallon bags of milk. Perishable items like these went to waste when restaurants closed and more people began eating at home.
All of this has caused a trickle-down effect: According to the Feeding America National Organization, food retailers and manufacturers have 40 to 60 percent less surplus food to donate to food banks – donations Feeding America West Michigan relies on.
In response, our purchased product & commodities analyst, Jerry, finds himself needing to purchase more food than ever before – and is competing with grocery stores to do so. He’s also seen many food items increase in price between 2 and 46 percent.
Fortunately, UPS, Fifth Third Bank and the Feeding America National Organization are helping the food bank cover these purchasing costs. Thanks to their support, we’re enabling our partner agencies to provide enough food for neighbors in need.
Demand soars due to increased need
The Feeding America National Organization expects 1 in 6 Americans to experience food insecurity this year, which means they can’t access or afford enough healthy food. That’s quite the jump from last year – when 1 in 8 neighbors in Michigan, as well as in the U.S. as a whole, were food insecure.
Our partner agencies have seen a spike in neighbors seeking help. For example, Community Action House in Ottawa County distributed more than 300 percent more food than usual to neighbors in March. Other pantries have seen similar increases.
“We have seen so many new faces – 63 percent are new,” said Melissa, food and connection director at Community Action House.
Usually, Community Action House receives food from Feeding America West Michigan just once a year and relies mostly on community donations to stock their shelves. As soon as their client numbers began spiking, however, they realized they needed more support and turned to the food bank to fill the gaps. Since March, the pantry received nearly 30,000 lbs of food – equaling 25,000 meals – in just four visits to the food bank.
“It shows just how important your services are in times of need,” Melissa said.
Programs get a new look during the pandemic
During normal times, when our agencies need food, they have the option to place orders online, but many choose to shop inside the food bank’s warehouse. This is no longer possible due to health concerns.
Now, our partner agencies must access the online shopping list to choose what they would like to order and pick up at the door. These orders are larger and more frequent than ever before, thus requiring more staff time to fill them.
Our partner agencies have made changes, too, but remain committed to serving their neighbors despite challenges.
Community Action House typically acts as a grocery store where neighbors can “shop” for food and choose which items work best for their family. For safety reasons, the pantry’s volunteers are creating food boxes that neighbors pick up “grab and go” style instead of coming inside. Usually, they provide neighbors with enough food to last a few days. Now, they’re giving enough to last at least a week so families can stay home longer.
The pantry’s devoted volunteer team also delivers boxes full of food to neighbors who can’t leave their homes because they fall into a high-risk category. In addition, Melissa is doing her best to consider the diverse needs of all the pantry’s neighbors, including migrant workers who often can’t access the same government hunger-relief programs as other neighbors.
“We’re creating boxes with culturally appropriate cuisine, so it’s not just food, it’s familiar food,” she said.
Community Action House’s community kitchen – which serves hot breakfast on weekends and lunch on weekdays – has also been overhauled. Now, they serve meals in to-go boxes, just like curbside pickup at restaurants.
Neighbors grateful they can feed their families
Many families throughout Michigan rely on work in factories or the service industry to survive. Melissa from Community Action House shared that many new visitors to the pantry had lost these types of jobs because of the pandemic:
“I was talking with a gentleman who was working overtime so he could afford to help his daughter go to college – and now looking ahead he’s wondering how he could do that,” because he lost his job, Melissa shared.
Another member of the Community Action House team, Crystal, who volunteers and serves on the nonprofit’s consumer advisory council, knows what it’s like to have a dramatic change in circumstances cause that first visit to a food pantry. After years of building up her career in business administration, she experienced many challenges all at once and had to quit her job: she lost her husband, found out her mom had cancer and learned her daughter has special needs.
Today, Crystal rarely uses the pantry, but understands what it must be like for the thousands of families newly in need during this time:
“It’s frightening. The first thing that hits a parent is pride. I never had asked for help before or struggled, but once you get there, there’s so much kindness and they treat you like a human being. I cried the first few times. I didn’t want to sit there and be that person.”
Positive moments in a time of adversity
“One of the positives is that there’s reduced stigma in coming to a pantry,” Melissa said. “Often times, people like to be judgmental and say ‘it’s something you did,’ or ‘you made a bad decision.’ During this time, it’s clear things are out of your control – not something wrong or bad.”
Alyssa, one of the food bank’s agency relations specialists has been humbled by how many of our partner agencies have remained open to serve neighbors through it all. She’s also opening more new agency accounts than ever.
“They are all so dedicated to serving their communities,” she said. “They aren’t worried about themselves – they’re worried about those in the community that are in need.”
We are grateful we can continue supporting our partner agencies as they work hard to get food into the hands of those who need it most. Thanks to the help of supporters like UPS, Fifth Third and the Feeding America National Organization, we know we can continue to be there with the help our neighbors need – pandemic or not.
Story written by Communication Assistant Juliana Ludema.