Can you imagine not having enough food to not only feed yourself, but your family? For plenty of mid-Michigan residents, they don't have to imagine. Finding food is a reality they face every day.
In 2020, videos and images of lines of cars - in some cases, bumper to bumper - surfaced at food banks. As the pandemic has worsened, those lines got bigger and longer, exposing the immediate need for food in our communities.
“It’s going to take families really months and months to recover,” said Kara Ross, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
Food insecurity is not a new issue. It's one that keeps growing.
“What we’re seeing during the pandemic is an increased need of this food to really fill the gaps that are existing for a lot of people," Ross said.
Those gaps could be reduced hours, job lay-offs, or delayed government assistance. Communities are in more need of food assistance than ever before.
“So, we’ve seen a significant increase," Ross said. "We’re just seeing community after community needing more help."
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan’s food insecurity rate sits at 14 percent. Since the pandemic, that number has skyrocketed to a 40 percent food insecurity rate.
“People who are hungry, hungry people [are] trying to get help during a very difficult time in their lives," Ross said. “A lot of people have depleted their savings and not had jobs or income."
Typically, nearly 20 million pounds of food is distributed across the 22 counties the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan serves. As demand rises, so does the distribution.
“Since the pandemic started, even since mid-March, we’ve distributed over 49 million pounds of food,” Ross said.
A lot of that food prep happens in the processing room at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint. Volunteers and Michigan National Guard members pack and weigh food boxes. Even for the food bank, food has been hard to come by. Manufacturers put their focus on getting food and produce to grocery retail stores first. In the meantime, the food bank has done what they could to provide food and assistance to their network of more than 700 hunger relief partners.
“We had to be very creative about working with our farm partners and our communities here in Michigan, both to have fresh produce, and milk and dairy," Ross said. "All of the things we want to be able to provide to our families."
Getting creative while staying safe and socially distanced can be a challenge. To help, the food bank has largely utilized its mobile food pantry.
“We’re doing about 55 mobile food pantries a week, which is a huge increase. We’d usually average about 20 this time of year,” Ross said.
With COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, an influx of volunteers also wasn't practical.
“We’re very thankful for multiple deployments with Michigan National Guard, who has been able to come in and help build our food boxes and sort food products and make sure we can move this product very quickly and out back into neighborhoods,” Ross said.
There's a long road to recovery for mid-Michigan families. The food bank acknowledges its role in feeding the vulnerable is far from over.
“So we anticipate doing double our normal distribution through all of 2021 and well into 2022,” Ross said. “We need to make sure that this network is strong, available, and ready, well through 2022."
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is constantly adapting. Every three to four months, the food bank looks at how it's sourcing its food, and update its model in obtaining and distributing food.