“We could never buy fresh fruit” – U.P. neighbor who faced hunger gives back

Annie poses for a photo in front of a Mobile Pantry

Nearly 70 years ago when Annie was just 9, she would wake up early, walk into town – rain, snow or shine – and peel potatoes at local restaurants.

“They would give me a meal and something to take home to my mom,” she said.

Annie poses for a photo in front of a Mobile Pantry
Annie works hard to ensure Marquette County neighbors access the food they need.

Annie’s mom was a hardworking waitress, but there often wasn’t much food in the house. She spent her childhood living both in Marquette County with her mom and – when her mom was struggling – in Minnesota with her grandparents.

When she married Clifford, her husband of 62 years, at age 16, Annie again faced hunger. The mines that U.P. residents relied on for work had shut down, so the couple lived off of government surplus commodities such as cheese and canned goods (similar to today’s food assistance programs such as SNAP).

The family appreciated these items, especially when they had small children, but Annie recalled, “We could never buy oranges or apples and fresh fruit.”

Now, Annie and Clifford help kids and families in need access fresh produce no matter their situation. They run Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantries that provide plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and more to Marquette County neighbors.

A volunteer carries a box of food while a client waits in a car.
Mobile Pantries quickly distribute fresh food in high-need areas.

In the U.P., jobs in mining, construction or tourism are often seasonal, leaving families without income during long winters. Big expenses such as surgeries or car repairs can leave families with difficult choices. COVID-19 has only intensified these challenges.

Before running the Mobile Pantries, Annie volunteered at a local nonprofit, regularly visiting 1,000 homes and connecting neighbors with food, furniture or help with bills. Often, she said, these neighbors preferred to “suffer in silence” than ask for help. She encouraged them to move past this “Yooper pride” and take what they needed – and share any extras with others.

Annie remains friends with many of the neighbors she’d visit and is eager to chat whenever she sees them at a Mobile Pantry. She knew many of the 500+ families who went through the Mobile Pantry line at Ishpeming’s NORTHIRON Church in early September.

“They seem to be almost amazed that this program is here for them at such a time when the rest of the country seems so chaotic,” Annie said.

Mobile Pantries exist for neighbors like Scott, a disabled veteran whose wife just had a pacemaker put in. The couple often watches – and cooks for – their five grandchildren while their parents are at work.

A middle aged man wearing a mask sits in his car

“The price of food is going up and with everything going on we’re barricaded in our house just trying to make ends meet,” Scott said.

Mobile Pantries exist for neighbors like Natasha and Karina, friends who used to volunteer at Mobile Pantries in high school but now attend themselves. As young parents, they attend Mobile Pantries to ensure they can make ends meet and that their children have fresh food.

A mom holds her baby while her friend looks on.

“My husband was laid off ever since we had our baby, but he’s going to be working again next Tuesday,” Natasha said. “At first I was like, ‘I’m sure that there’s people who need this way more than me’ – but you can’t discount your own need.”

Mobile Pantries exist for neighbors like Noreen, a senior who not only picks up food for her own family but also for a single mom who has cancer and no transportation.

A lady drives her car through the mobile pantry line. She wears a shirt with a cat on it.

“It’s just nice to help,” she said.

Kind neighbors like Annie and Clifford are quick to do all they can to fill the need, but they don’t do it alone. Marquette Mobile Pantries – some run by the couple – are made possible by many supporters of the food bank including the We Energies Foundation, Superior Health Foundation, West End Health Foundation and the Feeding America National Organization. Some of these supporters also sponsor Mobile Food Pantries in other U.P. counties.

For Annie, the biggest reward is when neighbors are excited at the sight of a box filled with fresh produce – something she could only dream of when she was in need.

Feeding America West Michigan is honored to support efforts to end hunger in Marquette County. With the continued generosity of grantors, donors and volunteers, neighbors like the ones served in Ishpeming will no longer have to worry how they’ll fill their fridges.

Story by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.