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.
When Mary Ann was laid off in mid-March, her first thought was her 7-year-old daughter Madison: “How will we be able to provide for everything she needs?” she recalled thinking.
“With bills to pay, feeding our family and pets – I had a slight panic attack,” she shared.
Mary Ann is a student studying Sports Science at Northern Michigan University. Like many students, she had faced financial difficulties in the past, but never to this extent.
Then, she remembered that NMU has a food pantry, where any student in need can shop the shelves for essentials.
“Everybody there is so kind and caring and judgment-free. It was like a safe zone,” Mary Ann shared. “They were always super helpful and made our experiences lovely.”
Haley, the college’s assistant dean of students, runs the pantry and does all she can for the students she serves. Haley and the pantry’s volunteers always try to include something fun in Mary Ann’s groceries for Madison – like toys, Star Wars chicken noodle soup or mac n cheese in fun shapes.
“It was a treat to see Mary Ann and her daughter unload their box into their backpacks and discover the special items that we had on the shelves,” Haley said.
One day, Mary Ann’s car broke down, so she biked to the pantry and, somehow, carried 50 lbs. of groceries home with her. Realizing how difficult that task is, Haley began delivering food to the family instead.
Throughout the pandemic, the family has stayed afloat thanks to Mary Ann’s husband’s job, unemployment income and help from the pantry.
“We have all learned to slow down and enjoy each and every minute together,” Mary Ann shared. “We could not have done it without the help of NMU’s food pantry.”
Mary Ann has a background in personal training and massage therapy, but recently chose to act on a longtime dream – and invest in her family’s future – by finishing up her degree. She has just three classes left and is considering grad school. Madison has often attended college classes with Mary Ann for one reason or another, and is learning so much from the professors!
Even during normal times, it’s common for students to struggle. In 2017, NMU surveyed students and found that 40 percent had gone hungry because they couldn’t afford food.
In response, they opened a food pantry and stock their shelves in large part with food from Feeding America West Michigan. The COVID-19 Community Response Fund from the United Way and the Community Foundation of Marquette County has recently helped the food bank stock the shelves at the NMU Food Pantry, and at other pantries in the county.
The food pantry also provides fresh produce sourced directly from NMU’s Hoop House – a student-run greenhouse.
Students often find ways to balance everything, but sometimes an illness happens, a car breaks down or a student teaching requirement gets in the way of employment, causing money to run out. In these times of crisis, students must to choose where to allocate their funds. Often, food is the easiest expense to cut out.
Using the pantry – according to a survey the college conducted this year – helps students reduce anxiety, prioritize other financial obligations, stay continuously enrolled and realize they aren’t alone.
“There are so many students who are working like crazy to change their circumstances and get out of poverty. Getting a college education is one of their steps along the way,” Haley said. “I love hearing students talk about how when they are out of their current circumstances and are able to give back, that they’ll support food pantries.”
The food bank is proud to support the efforts of NMU to end hunger at their school. We hope that one day students like Mary Ann across our service area can focus on making their dreams come true – instead of worrying about food.