Lake County “grandfamilies” find support at St. Ann’s

In the mid-1900s, Idlewild was a booming resort town that offered wealthy African Americans a summer getaway. Then, integration broadened these vacationers’ options, leaving Idlewild with a diminished economy. Today, Lake County towns like Idlewild and nearby Baldwin are still home to some of the Lower Peninsula’s most beautiful rural sites — but the area’s rurality also means distance from grocery stores and jobs.

Young people often leave these towns in search of jobs, while many seniors retire to them for a quieter life. But when a spouse dies or a health crisis occurs, senior residents are left with few resources and many find themselves in need.

As a result, Lake County’s food insecurity rates are the highest in our service area. In 2021, as many as 1 in 5 neighbors, including 1 in 3 children, in the county may be unsure where their next meal is coming from.

Shelly and her team of staff and volunteers at St. Ann’s Catholic Church hate seeing their neighbors in need, so they serve Baldwin and Idlewild seniors through meal delivery and a monthly Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Food Pantry.

Shelly, her staff and volunteers work hard to feed their neighbors.

“You don’t know somebody’s situation,” Shelly said. “Especially with my own mom, her medicine sometimes is so expensive. It can be hard on people.”

Seniors are the focus of St. Ann’s mission, and before the pandemic, they hosted congregant meals, where seniors could socialize in addition to getting a full plate of food. The pandemic forced them to switch to a home delivery model. Shelly noticed the lack of socialization caused a decline in mental agility in her mom and some of the seniors they serve.

“It’s a little scary it can happen so quickly,” she said.

Eloise, a senior who attends the Mobile Pantries, shared she misses the congregant meals the most.

The Mobile Pantries regularly serve more than 100 families in a drive-thru model. They offer more than just fresh produce and other food, but a chance to chat with Shelly or a volunteer — even during the pandemic’s loneliest days.

Most neighbors who attend St. Ann’s Mobile Pantries are single or married seniors, but a subset are grandparents raising their grandchildren. Wanda and her husband are among these “grandfamilies.” The couple raised their children and four grandchildren, and now they’re raising 6-year-old great-grandson Carter.

“We don’t get any help raising him, and that makes things really tight for us,” Wanda said. “So every little bit helps.”

Wanda didn’t think she’d end up raising another child, but, she said, “The thought of what would happen if he wasn’t with us is very scary.”

Grandfamilies are an increasing subset of the population, and a group that is particularly at risk for challenges such as food insecurity. Like Wanda, some grandparents raising grandkids don’t qualify for government support, even though they’re spending income differently than their peers.

Wanda and her husband originally learned of St. Ann’s during her husband’s battle with esophageal and colon cancer. From there, they heard of Mobile Pantries and began attending whenever they need help with groceries.

To make ends meet, Wanda also gardens and cans. One of her favorite hobbies is doing ancestry and taking photos of local graves to share with long-distance relatives. Even Carter helps find the right graves when she takes him to the graveyard!

Wanda described Carter as a “self-proclaimed vegetarian” whose favorite food is carrots.

“He’ll eat any vegetable there is,” she said. “He’s not a normal child.”

Seniors face a wide range of challenges, whether it’s isolation or raising a grandchild. The food bank is proud to support Shelly and everyone at St. Ann’s as they work to ensure these older residents who have done so much for others don’t have to go without.

Mobile Pantries across Lake County provide similar support for neighbors. The Lake County Community Foundation helps make some of these food distributions possible. So does the DTE Energy Foundation, which also sponsored extra food distributions during the pandemic in a number of counties across West Michigan.