Located halfway between St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie, Kinross Township was once the site of a bustling Air Force base. Today, 7,500 residents, an international airport and multiple prisons call the township home.
Neighbors living in Kinross experience the beauty of rural living, but also the challenges. Many struggle to access food as a result of the area’s rurality. Residents rely on small convenience stores where produce is often pricy. To find healthy options at the lowest prices, neighbors often drive 25 minutes to Sault Ste. Marie. Many jobs are also located closer to the city, so neighbors often make that commute – a gas cost which can add up.
Distance from grocery stores and jobs are among the reasons Chippewa County, where Kinross is located, has one of the highest rates of hunger in Feeding America West Michigan’s 40-county service area. The pandemic has intensified this need. During normal times, 1 in 6 neighbors faces hunger, but that ratio is projected to jump to 1 in 4 this year. Children are even more at risk. In Chippewa, more than 1,400 children face hunger, a number projected to increase to 2,330 this year.
Twice a month, these neighbors can receive shelf-stable food and other items at New Hope Community Church’s food pantry. Located in Kincheloe, a small village in Kinross Township, the pantry receives much of its food from Feeding America West Michigan, and is run by Lindsey and her team of loyal volunteers.
“You have sections of Kincheloe that are very low income,” Lindsey said. “There’s lots of guards who live there, because there are prisons right there. And you also have people who moved up to be closer to families who are in the prison.”
This mix of people makes for a unique community, and a diversity of neighbors visit the food pantry each month. But when the church first began its pantry, Lindsey noticed that attendees would just sit quietly together in the waiting area.
“Nobody smiled, nobody looked at each other. It felt sad to me,” she said.
So Lindsey and the other volunteers began providing meals for neighbors as they waited. Until the pandemic changed everything, this communal meal offered opportunity for neighbors to socialize. Lindsey received a lot of great feedback.
“It was more than feeding their stomachs; it was feeding their hearts, too,” she said.
Usually, around 35 families visit the pantry each day it’s open. During much of the pandemic, that number doubled.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Lindsey said. “I don’t want the people that come in to think that we’re above them or anything like that, because I don’t want to be.”
One older gentleman in his late 70s particularly stands out to Lindsey. He attends without his wife, so volunteers always give him an extra plate to bring home to her.
“At the end of last year, he said, ‘if you guys weren’t here I don’t know what we’d do,’” Lindsey shared.
At one point, Lindsey had to receive food assistance too. The experience helps her relate to those she serves.
“It was embarrassing. It was humbling. But that was just where we were. I was thankful that it was there, but it’s not always a fun place to be – in need.”
Although New Hope Community Church’s food pantry provides some fresh foods, it’s best suited to store shelf-stable options like dried pasta and canned vegetables.
Feeding America West Michigan’s Mobile Food Pantry program – which brings fresh produce, protein and other items to high-need areas – works to fill this gap in small townships like Kinross.
In February, a Mobile Pantry came to Kincheloe’s Kinross Recreation Center. The distribution provided fresh, nutritious food to neighbors Lindsey serves – perhaps including the gentleman in his late 70s – and to new faces as well. For many neighbors like them, produce is often out of reach.
“Eating healthy can be very costly to those who have limited incomes or are in crisis,” said Barb, a Mobile Pantry volunteer. “Often it is cheaper to purchase prepackaged pasta type meals and foods with lower nutritional value, while neglecting produce and protein intake because of limited budgets.”
Students from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie came to Kinross to volunteer at the distribution. Many said the experience was “eye opening.” Other volunteers came from the United Way of the Eastern Upper Peninsula, who also sponsored the distribution.
Hopefully soon the shelf-stable foods offered by New Hope Community Church will be supplemented by fresh produce year round – provided by consistent Mobile Food Pantries.
Feeding America West Michigan relies on the support of organizations like the United Way of the EUP, and the dedication of organizations like New Hope, to distribute food to neighbors facing hunger. Without their efforts, many neighbors would have nowhere to turn for the help they need.