Neighbors in need find food and hope at Manistee Friendship Society

Katrina sits with her family's food in the back of her car holding a stuffed animal and ear of corn.

The Manistee Friendship Society believes mental illness is “too tough a road to walk alone.” That’s why they offer classes and community events for any Manistee neighbor needing mental health support.

The society also offers a traditional food pantry and, this year, began hosting Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantries, sponsored by the DTE Energy Foundation, as another way to serve neighbors – whether they’re part of the society or not.

Cassandra and a volunteer pose for a photo.
Cassandra (left) and volunteer Rita share a commitment to ending hunger in their community.

“No one should have to go without food,” said Cassandra, the society’s executive director. “It can be draining on their mental health when they are worried about feeding themselves and their families.”

PJ, a Mobile Pantry attendee who struggles with both mental and physical challenges, has often felt this way:

“With everything going on in the world, it gets hard. I’m a single mom to a 7-year-old,” she said. “It’s a big relief to know that I have the fresh produce to feed my family,” and that “you’re not being judged because you need anything.”

PJ, her daughter and her mother pose inside and outside their car.
Three generations of this resilient Manistee family use Mobile Pantries to fill gaps in their cupboards.

Having grown up on a farm, PJ is used to living off the land, so she tries to be as self-sufficient as possible. She raises chickens, grows a garden and is passing these skills down to her daughter, Katrina.

She’s particularly grateful that the Mobile Pantries provide fresh produce, which supplements her garden’s harvest and the shelf-stable food she typically purchases using SNAP benefits.

Katrina sits with her family's food in the back of her car holding a stuffed animal and ear of corn.
Katrina, 7, loves vegetables – and stuffed animals!

“I’d prefer to have fresh. And that’s so much more costly to buy in the store,” PJ said.

Executive Director Cassandra also appreciates the healthy options the food bank provides for both the Mobile Pantries and the society’s traditional pantry.

“The food we put into our body can play such an important role in our mental health,” she said.

Food assistance is one of the society’s focuses because, too often, neighbors who have mental illnesses struggle to support themselves.

“When you need to work a 40 hour a week job, it’s hard to explain to your boss that ‘hey, today’s just a bad day for me,’” explained Tina, the nonprofit’s assistant executive director. “So it’s hard to not only get a job, but keep a job.”

Tina signs neighbors in to the Mobile Pantries.

In addition to serving neighbors who struggle with mental illnesses, the Manistee Friendship Society’s hunger relief efforts help seniors and other neighbors who need food support for diverse reasons.

“Right now, some of the problem is that people are afraid to get out and go to the store, especially elderly or vulnerable people,” Cassandra said.

Some of these neighbors lack transportation, so before the Mobile Pantries begin, volunteers fill Dial-a-Ride buses with boxes for neighbors in need who can’t drive to the distributions. All neighbors have to do is call to make an order, and food will arrive on their doorstep.

In Manistee County, 1 in 7 neighbors is food insecure, meaning they can’t afford or access enough healthy food. COVID-19 has caused that number to rise to 1 in 5, according to projections.

“Coming together with other community partners to combat hunger in our county has been such a blessing to be a part of,” Cassandra said. “I think it is very important for us to help those in need. One day, you or I may need that help.”

For Tony, a Manistee Friendship Society member and Mobile Pantry attendee, the community, classes, meals and programs offered have been life-changing. He’s visited nearly every day since he retired.

Tony and Terri pose in their car.
Tony and Terri appreciate the support they receive from the society.

“It’s just a wealth of acceptance,” he said.

Feeding America West Michigan is proud to walk alongside organizations doing all they can to give neighbors a helping hand. Support from organizations like the DTE Energy Foundation make everything just a little bit easier – not just for our agency and Mobile Pantry partners, but also for the neighbors they serve.

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.