On a hot day in August, a van covered with pictures of colorful food pulls into the parking lot of a neighborhood on the eastern border of Washtenaw County. For the next 45 minutes, nearby residents visit the mobile food site to pick-up one week’s worth of free summer meals for their kids.
This mobile food site is one of 24 Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sites sponsored by Food Gatherers, the food bank and food rescue program serving Washtenaw County. For some families, programs like this have been a lifeline during the pandemic.
“This food saved us through the whole summer,” says one parent, Sarah*, whose son helps load the bags full of food into their car. “After our food stamps ran out, it helped us get through the rest of the week.”
Sarah’s story is similar to many Washtenaw County families who have struggled to afford food amid the economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 7 residents in Washtenaw County were food insecure, meaning they did not have access to reliable, nutritious food,” says Eileen Spring, President and CEO of Food Gatherers. “The pandemic is exacerbating food insecurity among those already in need, and is causing many others to seek help for the first time in their lives.”
Since mid-March, Food Gatherers’ network of partner agencies, including food pantries and meal programs, has reported a 30-300% increase in visitors. About 40% were first time visitors who had never needed emergency food before.
A Perfect Storm for Food Banks
Spring says the pandemic created a “perfect storm” of food insecurity and operational challenges for food banks nationwide. “We have never seen anything like it, there was a drastic increase in people needing help, and at the same time, the pandemic forced us to completely rethink every aspect of our service model.”
The challenge for Food Gatherers has been how to safely distribute much-needed food while continuing operations without its 7,000+ volunteers, a decline in donated food, and disruptions to the national supply chain.
Since April, Food Gatherers has increased the amount of food it distributes each month by nearly 30% over an average month, anywhere between 700,000 to 800,000 pounds each month. Closing out its fiscal year in June, the food bank marked its largest annual total pounds of food distributed in its 31-year history, with a total of 7.8 million pounds distributed. Food Gatherers also forged new partnerships with local restaurants and the University of Michigan to increase donated food, and received additional help when ten members of the National Guard were deployed to package emergency food boxes.
The Future of Food Security
Feeding America, the national association of food banks, projects that food insecurity will increase in the months ahead. Specifically in Washtenaw County by the end of 2020 overall food insecurity could rise by 40% and child food insecurity by 103% from pre-pandemic levels.
Today, the spike in food pantry visitors has not abated, and the amount of food distributed by Food Gatherers each month continues to break records. The Summer Food Service Program, which ended in late August, distributed 75,507 meals to children, a 40% increase over last summer’s total, and another new record for the organization.
While Food Gatherers and its partner programs are working to distribute more food to more people, increasing access to food assistance in the long term will require strengthening federal support for hunger relief initiatives.
Since July, food banks nationwide have been advocating for Congress to include critical food resources for families in its next relief bill. An increase in SNAP benefits (food stamps) would be a huge help for people like Sarah, whose current benefits couldn’t cover her family’s food expenses. Federal support would relieve some of the pressure on food banks, who work to bridge the gap for families when their SNAP benefits aren’t enough.
Looking forward, food banks across the country are preparing for a sustained increase in food insecurity. “We have shifted from an emergency response to planning for the long-term,” says Spring.
“Now more than ever, food banks need your support,” says Spring. “The number of people facing hunger where we live is greater than ever, and it’s not going down. We expect there to be a real need for food for a very long time.”
Anyone in need of food can contact Food Gatherers at 734-761-2796 or visit their website, for an up-to-date list of food distribution sites.
Now is a critical time for food banks, please consider making a donation to support Food Gatherers’ hunger relief efforts. To learn how you can become involved in the fight against hunger locally, please visit www.foodgatherers.org or call 734-761-2796.
*Name has been changed