Mobile Pantry attendance up 63%, not slowing down in Big Rapids

Volunteers load cars with food amid a snowy backdrop

Despite the snowy conditions that marked Big Rapids’ first blizzard of the season, dozens of volunteers lined the town’s fairgrounds, loading neighbors’ cars with milk, juice, produce and other food at a Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantry.

“I think everybody does a good job about making everyone feel welcomed,” said Danielle, who’s been volunteering at the Mobile Pantries since last April, but has been volunteering at a local organization that fights child hunger for much longer.

Danielle prepares to load a neighbor's car

“It really broke my heart,” she said. “I never thought that a child goes home and doesn’t have food. And that they want to go to school, because that’s when they have a chance to eat.”

In Mecosta County, this is reality for the 1 in 4 kids who faces hunger — a higher rate than usual due to the pandemic’s effects.

In April, the need was through the roof throughout the food bank’s 40-county service area due to recent layoffs. Today, many in Mecosta County are still finding it hard to feed their families.

“We’ve been consistently seeing 100 – 150 [families], but the last couple of months it’s been over 200. The last two months we’ve run out of food,” said Joni, who helps coordinate Mobile Pantries in Big Rapids.

She and co-coordinator, Bonnie, both lead traditional food pantries in town. When the food ran out, they took neighbors to their pantries, so they wouldn’t go home empty handed. In response, the food bank loaded more food onto December’s Mobile Pantry truck.

A neighbor's car is loaded with a variety of fresh produce and other food.

Danielle thinks there could be even more neighbors in need who feel unsure whether they should come to a Mobile Pantry, but she encouraged those finding themselves in this situation that “there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

The food bank as a whole felt the increased need big time in 2020. Preliminary figures show that the food bank served 63 percent more neighbors at Mobile Pantries in 2020 compared to 2019.

It takes more than coordinators and volunteers to make Mobile Pantries possible. The food bank also relies on individuals, businesses and grantors who chip in to help sponsor the events. Last year, the Mecosta County Community Foundation helped bring three Mobile Pantries to the area, providing food for hundreds of families in need.

Even though the current drive-thru Mobile Pantry model means less attendee-volunteer interaction, Bonnie still finds moments to share a few kind words.

“I don’t know their names, but I know their faces, and they know me I can say, ‘You were brave today,’” she said. “And they are so appreciative. I just tell them, ‘Our pleasure, well worth it.’”

Volunteers load cars with food amid a snowy backdrop

She explained the need simply: “Just like any other community, we have low income people who need to use their money towards rent, bills, etc. Sometimes food comes last.”

One thing that makes her feel proud of her work is when people who once received food turn around and donate.

“We are just so happy to be able to help our community members in their time of need.  We are getting people that never even imagined using a pantry,” she said.

Feeding America West Michigan has been proud to partner with so many hunger warriors who have helped their neighbors throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic. Bonnie said that although, “it’s a shame we have to be here,” until no one else is in need, her team will continue to serve. The food bank concurs.

Story written by Communication Specialist Juliana Ludema.