COVID-19 Hunger Heroes Part 4: United Way of Montcalm-Ionia Counties brings 44 Mobile Pantries to neighbors in need during pandemic

Katie poses with the food she received at the Mobile Pantry

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.

On a sunny day in early June, cars lined the road leading up to Saranac High School’s football field. The cars’ drivers waited patiently for the Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantry to begin. They watched as volunteers unloaded thousands of pounds of fresh produce and other food from one of the food bank’s trucks and prepared it for distribution.

Volunteers wearing masks unload a Mobile Pantry truck.

Katie was one of 240 attendees that day. The 24-year-old Saranac resident benefited from each of the five Mobile Food Pantries held at the high school and run by Saranac Community Church so far this year.

She pointed out that the line was a lot shorter than usual – perhaps because some neighbors had returned to work. Like many in the line, Katie lost her job due to the pandemic. She hopes to return to the bookstore she worked at when it reopens.

Katie lives with her mother and younger sister, age 20, who also work in retail. When all three of them lost their jobs in March, Katie wasn’t sure how they’d make ends meet.

Then, her sister saw an ad on Facebook for an upcoming Mobile Pantry – the first held in Saranac during the pandemic, and one of 44 sponsored by the United Way of Montcalm-Ionia Counties this year.

At these Mobile Pantries, Katie received fresh produce and other food for herself and her mother and sister, all throughout the pandemic.

Katie poses with the food she received at the Mobile Pantry

“I’m really grateful, because otherwise we wouldn’t know where to get food from our community,” she said.

These groceries supplement food she purchases from the store. Since her mother and sister are immune compromised, she takes on the responsibility of shopping in order to keep them safe.

“It’s a great experience. The volunteers really try their best and take time out of their day to take care of everyone,” she said.

Members of Saranac Community Church love serving neighbors through their church’s traditional pantry. So when they heard that the United Way of Montcalm-Ionia Counties had made it possible for the food bank to bring Mobile Pantries to their area, they were eager to volunteer – even though they had never run one of these distributions before.

Experienced in managing the church’s traditional pantry, Margaret took on the challenge of running the Mobile Pantries. Volunteers include Beth, who normally substitute teaches but has plenty of time to volunteer since schools are closed.

Beth loads a neighbor's car

“It’s been very heavy on my heart when I see there’s so many in need,” Beth said. “But it’s so nice when I see so much gratefulness in their faces. Some of them even cry because it’s something that they really needed.”

Beth wishes she could do more. Some neighbors who come to the Mobile Pantries and traditional pantry are from Clarksville, a small community in Ionia County that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

“Even the business owners have come to our pantry because they’re not getting income because of the shut down,” Beth said.

Beth, Margaret and the other volunteers don’t hesitate to offer a smile or word of encouragement to all who receive food.

“We want to present the church as a positive entity,” Margaret said. “We treat people with respect and want to help them.”

Not all neighbors who benefit from the Mobile Pantries are in need due to a lost job. Some, like Jack and Charlotte, need help for reasons unrelated to the pandemic.

Jack and Charlotte wait in line to receive food

The couple came for the first time in early June after incurring a lot of medical bills. Jack is fighting cancer, and Charlotte has a lung problem.

“We had to cut down on groceries and everything and we thought this might help subsidize it,” Charlotte said.

Thanks to supporters like the United Way of Montcalm-Ionia Counties, neighbors facing hunger due to lost jobs, high medical bills and a variety of other reasons have access to fresh produce and other food to help them thrive. Feeding America West Michigan is proud to work alongside organizations like Saranac Community Church, and looks forward to the day when all neighbors in Montcalm and Ionia Counties have fridges and cupboards full of the food they need.

Story written by Communication Assistant Juliana Ludema.