By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Contributor
The holidays are fast approaching, bringing Hallmark Christmas card visions of turkey feasts, pumpkin pies, full bellies and happy family gatherings. But for many residents here, food insecurity has become a daily concern. Many are not sure they will have a holiday – or even enough food to feed their families – between now and the New Year.
“Food security is knowing you can eat whenever you or your family members are hungry,” explains Markle Miller, Food Gatherers’ director of community nutrition programs. “As of 2020, food banks and low-income families are fraught with uncertainty. They feel increasingly stretched and stressed.
Auto industry strikes, a potential government shutdown looming this month, rising food and gas prices, shrinking USDA contributions to food banks and the end of the Covid-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) combined to form the perfect storm for Washtenaw’s food pantries. The district has 19 nos high capacity food pantries, but Food Gatherers reports partnering with more than 140 agencies and programs, including 83 total food pantries that are open to the public in Washtenaw County. Despite the numbers, pantries are juggling a record number of urgent requests for help, sometimes with desperate temporary measures.
“When does the crisis become the new norm?” Sayiza Nabilsi asks rhetorically.
The director of Bryant Community Center’s food pantry (Washtenaw’s largest) answers his own question: “When it’s not even news anymore. That’s when we’re in trouble. And it looks like we’re going to run into trouble.
“Circumstances for a lot of people are really scary this year. Our food pantry would like to give people a lot more,” sighs Nabilsi. “Our shoppers tell us they need money for gas, hygiene supplies, cleaning products and diapers. We never know when the Food Gatherers will give us these items. We want to help everyone, but it’s so hard.” Sometimes she digs into her own pockets to help a family. And when asked, she offers gift card donations so volunteers can provide emergency assistance to shoppers in need.
“Needs are growing, our budgets are shrinking and food prices are rising,” says Food Gatherers director Eileen Springer. “I admit I feel panicked sometimes.”
Nineteen food pantries are scattered across Washtenaw County, some as far west as Faith in Action, which serves Dexter and Chelsea; some as far north as Active Faith Community Services, which serves an 84-square-mile area just north of Ann Arbor; some as far east as Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti; and others reach populations as far south as the county border. Many are faith-based, some are sponsored by nonprofits like the Salvation Army, and a few are community efforts.
“Not only are we seeing an increase in visits, but also new faces,” says Springer.
The acronym ALICE was coined to describe the newcomers to the world of food warehouses: employees with limited assets and limited income. “These are people who work full-time, but in the good months live on a clean household budget,” says Sharon Sower, director of Active Faith Community Services.
“They have a lot of pride and held back as much as they could before asking for help. But now they can’t put food on the table without help,” said Helen Harms, who coordinates food distribution for Trinity Lutheran Church. “I prefer to call them buyers – it seems more dignified.”
Active Faith has seen a steady influx of new people — “far above, sometimes double, what we’re used to seeing — and that was before the UAW strike.” She’s seeing more disabled shoppers (“30% of closet visitors), issues with mental health, people who have never set foot on their own two feet post-Covid, and Spanish-speaking families – “which means volunteers deal with language barriers as well as food distribution”.
During Trinity’s summer food pantry, Helen Harms saw an increase from 30 to 44 households requesting assistance. “We serve everyone who needs food, mostly the elderly, although ten of the 44 households this summer were young families with children.” Ten households speak Chinese, five speak Arabic, and several families recently immigrated from Africa. “All of our volunteers learned to use Google Translator this summer.”
As the church food pantry assimilates the newcomers, its members have made a congregation-wide commitment to increase the community’s food budget, as well as learn more about the expired and pending farm bill, hoping to influence Congress to address food insecurity.
Food Foragers: “We’re Not a Grocery Store”
Formed in 1988, Food Gatherers is an umbrella organization that collects and distributes protein, produce and dry goods to all nineteen Washtenaw food banks – as well as paper, cleaning and hygiene products when possible. The collective statistics are startling: 56,000 people visited local pantries in our county at least once in 2023 — “that’s 52 percent of Big House capacity,” Miller points out. “We had approximately one million service visits (counting everyone who visited a closet). That’s nine times the capacity of the Great House!”
Nationally, the need for food assistance rose 50% between February, the month SNAP ended, and August. “It’s a challenge running a pantry, offering healthy, nutritious foods as well as other essentials, trying to guess where and what the demand will be and how much we’ll get each day in donations,” admits Food Gatherers director Eileen Springer. “We’re not a grocery store.”
“We believe that in a nation of plenty, no one should go hungry,” the website states. Every day, her volunteers and staff collect food from local grocery stores and farms, as well as private donors. “We also used to visit restaurants, but it’s too time-consuming. We had to wait until ten o’clock or later, and we didn’t know what we were going to get – if anything at all,” explains Springer. Volunteers and staff sort the food and allocate daily/bi-weekly/weekly distributions to the nineteen participating food banks.
In July 2021, at the height of the Covid pandemic, Washtenaw pantries collectively served 2,778 households. Two years later, the number rose to 5,374 last July. The difference is due in part to the pandemic’s federal food assistance and wage assistance programs.
When the government ended SNAP in February, vulnerable populations turned to food pantries, which saw visits jump. “These are working individuals and low-income families who used to be able to put food on the table but couldn’t do much else,” explains Markle Miller. “Now they can’t do that.”
Food Gatherers is calling on Congress to increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a critical resource for food banks as well as Michigan farmers. Michigan is the second largest supplier of food to the USDA nationwide.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in need – up 60% since the start of the year – but we probably have a little less food in our parcels than in the past because Food Collectors have less to share,” says Sarah Shugart, Director of Faith in Action. “We are fortunate that faith-based organizations in our area of Washtenaw County step up when we ask. In addition, Dexter and Chelsea schools are running non-perishable food campaigns.’
Not every closet buyer comes from a professional background. “We have people driving around in expensive cars, embarrassed that they now need help,” says Nabilsi. “Poverty has many different faces. But we heal everyone with dignity and respect.”
Saving food is very labor intensive. Aging food should be quickly sorted by date and then separated into separate pantries. “It’s happening every day and fast,” says Springer. Volunteers and staff members then make deliveries throughout the county following varying schedules. Smaller pantries may be open just one or a few days a week or only in the summer, like Trinity Lutheran’s pantry.
When food donations are low, Food Gatherers buy groceries to fill the void. This fiscal year, federal contributions to food collectors have dropped by 20% — meaning 500,000 fewer pound of protein and produce, a loss that must be compensated by emergency shopping trips. “It’s a necessary emergency response, but it’s not sustainable,” Springer points out. “We need new and stronger policies and we need increased community philanthropy to meet growing needs.”
To meet growing demands, Food Gatherers purchased 40% more kilos of protein and produce than a year ago. Springer expects that food costs could increase by 40% next year, at a time when the need is also growing.
Bryant Community Center has an average of 450 shoppers each week, but expects an increase in numbers during the holidays, when families with young students have to feed them three times a day, rather than just once during school days. In addition, the center will host a Christmas party for children, sponsor Adopt-a-Family gift boxes, and are currently starting to assemble Thanksgiving boxes.
The huge quantities that Food Gatherers distributes will not include turkeys. “We give all the food for quality side dishes, but we can’t handle turkeys or afford them,” Springer says. “Many businesses give their employees turkeys, and some food pantries have donations from civic organizations or church congregations.”
Her organization maintains a network of more than 140 community partners (from religious groups to clinics, libraries, schools, universities, health care providers and social service organizations) offering not only free and low-cost food, but also food, supplies and volunteer training. And because hunger is not solved by food alone, Food Gatherers advocates for responsive government policies and systemic change.
“The 2018 farm bill has expired, so this is the time when food banks can influence decisions,” says Miller. “I shudder to think of the potential impact if there is a budget shutdown in November.”
“We need help. We all need help.” Sayiza Nabilsi says.
Springer agrees, but points out, “The majority of our charitable giving comes in November and December. We are currently behind where we normally are. But hopefully we can make up for it. It’s a very generous community.”
To contact Food Gatherers or find information about food pantries and programs near you, visit https://www.foodgatherers.org/foodresources/.
Photos by Doug Marin