“It’s been that kind of year” — as the need increases in Osceola County, many step up to help

Pastor Jean poses in the church carrying a box filled with food.

Standing tall amid a small neighborhood, Evart United Methodist Church welcomed the line of cars that streamed almost endlessly through Evart’s streets in early December. Church volunteers packed the cars with fresh produce, baked goods, hot dogs, milk — in total serving 165 families facing hunger.

“I’m surprised that the need is so great in our community, and the people are so grateful for whatever they get. They always say ‘thank you’ when they leave, and they’re smiling,” said Jean, the church’s pastor.

Pastor Jean poses in the church carrying a box filled with food.

The large number of volunteers willing to help out at each of Evart UMC’s Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Pantries has also surprised Jean. Many are elderly, but they take time out of their day — despite the pandemic — to help their neighbors.

In Osceola County, the need is great: 1 in 5 neighbors are projected to be facing hunger right now, including more than 1,500 children. The numbers are heightened due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but even during non-pandemic times, the county’s rurality makes it hard for many to access and afford enough healthy food.

With jobs already scarce and grocery stores distant, a recent closure of a glass factory in Evart is only compounding the challenges many face. This closure leaves the community with 140 fewer jobs — a significant change in a town of just under 2,000 people.

Alan loads a neighbor's car with food.

Alan coordinates the Mobile Pantries, having suggested Evert UMC run their own after volunteering at a neighboring town’s food distributions two years ago. Serving on the local school board for 32 years, he is well aware of the large number of local kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“We’re making a difference in our community,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re called to do as people. I’m just glad that I have a number of volunteers who see things the same way, who are willing to come and give up their time and make this work.”

Usually, the church hosts four Mobile Pantries a year. This year, the Osceola County Community Foundation helped sponsor some of their food distributions, as well as other Mobile Pantries in the county. The foundation even provided additional support this fall, enabling Evart UMC to host two additional Mobile Pantries, just when things were at their worst for many. Over the past few Mobile Pantries, Evart UMC volunteers have seen an increasing number of neighbors in need.

A neighbor loads a wagon with an assortment of food

Jean encourages anyone who could use support to come.

“Everybody’s treated as though they’re family when they come. We want to do what we can to help. Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone’s really grateful and helpful.”

The Osceola County Community Foundation also supported Feeding America West Michigan’s traditional pantry partners in the county this year, including the Marion Food Pantry, located 25 minutes northeast of Evart.

“The resources here are very limited,” said Kathleen, the pantry director. “Many of the seniors and children are living at or below the poverty level.”

It’s common for Kathleen to get calls, especially from seniors, saying they have no food in the house. For example, she recently received a call from an elderly woman who said she and her husband had no money because they had to buy new glasses.

“She had never had to do anything like this before,” Kathleen said.

A shelf is stocked with various canned fruits.

Another elderly woman who attends the pantry needs a medication that costs $1,200 a month, but due to the price, she has been forced to go without.

“The first time she called, they had one box of macaroni in the house, and when that was gone, they were out of food.”

No matter a neighbor’s circumstance, Kathleen tells them not to be embarrassed — “it’s been that kind of year.”

Feeding America West Michigan is proud to serve neighbors alongside organizations like Evart UMC and the Marion Food Pantry. With their efforts and support from the Osceola County Community Foundation, the food bank hopes that, one day, no one in the county will worry how they’ll make ends meet.

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.