In the Western U.P., jobs are scarce but generosity isn’t

A group of volunteers stand at the firehouse

Home to the Porcupine Mountains and skies filled with the colors of Aurora Borealis, the Western U.P.’s remote nature makes it attractive to tourists, but also means scarce jobs and high food insecurity rates for those who live there year-round.

A bunch of trees grow on a cliff in the U.P., their roots revealed

In Ontonagon County, 1 in 7 neighbors is food insecure — meaning they struggle to access or afford enough food for a healthy, active life. This includes 20.6 percent of the county’s children. Jim, superintendent and principal for the Ontonagon Area School District, sees kids at risk of hunger each day. This need is why his school provides food to families through various programs.

When Jim was young, Ontonagon County was home to many industries that have since shut down. This has meant a lack of jobs and instability for the community. Over the last few years, the U.P.’s beauty has attracted more tourists, according to Jim, and he hopes the influx of visitors will create jobs.

However, with the onset of COVID-19, things have only become more challenging, and the number of people projected to face hunger has increased. In response to this increased need, the school district added Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Pantries, sponsored by the Portage Health Foundation, to its arsenal of hunger-relief efforts earlier this year.

A group of volunteers load boxes

“The very first Mobile Pantry we had it was just eye-opening to see the amount of folks out there who had a need for additional food resources,” Jim said. “I was expecting some people to come, but the number that showed up that day was amazing. We had a line of people that was just endless.”

John, a teacher, also volunteers — and knows what it’s like to face hunger.

“I’ve been an active volunteer for anything that comes up in the community for as long as I can remember,” he said. So when he heard about the Mobile Pantries, he was glad to help out.

John (left) loads a neighbor’s car.

“I know firsthand that programs like this are a big need in our community.”

Due to COVID-19, his wife lost her job, and even though John took on a second job, he wasn’t sure how they’d feed their five kids. Then, he realized there were Mobile Pantries near where the family was quarantining.

“Without that, I don’t know how we would’ve made it through the summer.”

Being in a small community meant that, at the first distribution he volunteered at, John knew around three-quarters of the attendees.

“When they see a familiar face, it seems to put them more at ease,” he said. “There’s no shame in this.”

A group of volunteers stand at the firehouse
Jim (bottom right with American flag sweatshirt) and his team of volunteers at the firehouse.

Jim has been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who, like John, are willing to step up and help. The local firehouse even offered to host a recent distribution to provide cover from the rain — something the firefighters were glad to do.

“It doesn’t matter their background. Everyone’s willing to jump on board and support this in any way possible.”

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.