Food banks face crunch as demand rises


Anna Almanza is the director of public policy and government relations at the Food Bank Council of Michigan. Image: Food Bank Council of Michigan

By Anish Topiwala

As the winter progresses, food banks and other nonprofit organizations continue to tackle the increasing demand to alleviate hunger in Michigan.

One in nine people in the state faced hunger as of 2021, requiring $696 million more per year to meet their food needs, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study.

Roughly 5.3% of them were 60 and older, with over half estimated to live in the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area, according to a study by AARP Michigan and Public Sector Consultants.

This season is an especially difficult time for those in need of food.

“The winter months are always when there’s a bigger demand on people’s finances,” said Christopher Ivey, the director of marketing and communications at Forgotten Harvest, Metro Detroit’s largest food rescue organization. “And when things get tough, one of the things that people have to sacrifice first is at their tables.”

“Utility bills are up that season,” said Kristin Sokul, the senior director of advancement communications, marketing and media at Gleaners, a food bank based in Detroit. It has distribution centers in Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Since kids are home from school during break, they no longer have access to the two meals normally provided through free and reduced price lunches and other federal programs, Sokul said.

Forgotten Harvest provides healthy meals to its 220 pantry partners across the area.

In 2023, it distributed the equivalent of 33,559,000 meals, with over 712,000 clients served. Around 418,000 of them were children, and approximately 345,000 were seniors.

Those numbers, according to Ivey, increased after the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to rise due to the high inflation rate.

“The Metro Detroiters that we serve, they’ve had struggle after struggle after struggle after struggle,” said Ivey. “A lot of people say that when the nation gets a cold, Metro Detroit gets the flu.”

Gleaners recently partnered with the Ford Motor Co. Fund and DoorDash to tackle transportation barriers faced by seniors.

It works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodity supplemental food program to provide seniors with healthy meals. With the partnership, Sokul said it will be easier for community residents to access meals.

“We can deliver that box of food directly to seniors’ doorsteps,” said Sokul.

Anna Almanza, the director of public policy and government relations at the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said the organization has worked ith DoorDash since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“DoorDash has been a great partner for several of the food banks within our network,” said Almanza. “That is definitely an area that the network’s working on expanding.”

Food waste is another concern.

One person working with food banks and rescuing wasted food is Chad Techner, the founder and director of Metro Food Rescue in West Bloomfield. Last year, his organization recovered food from 55 donors.

Chad Techner is the director of Metro Food Rescue

It works with independent grocery stores, farmer’s markets and food manufacturers, said Techner.

One of Metro Food Rescue’s goals this year is to work with stadiums in Detroit to reduce food waste at sports events.

“I’ve heard stories of thousands of pounds of food waste after every single event,” said Techner. “All of the food is being wasted within an arm’s throw of the people who need it.”

Another Metro Food Rescue goal is a pilot project with partners to make Southfield a zero- food-waste community – “all the way from prevention, rescue at all stages and then organic recycling to make sure that no food goes in the landfill,” said Techner.

“This problem is eminently solvable, and we have all of the resources to solve it,” he said. “We don’t have a food problem – we have a logistics problem. There’s plenty of food.”

Metro Food Rescue collaborates with Yad Ezra, a private food pantry that was created primarily to serve the Jewish community and ensure that those in need can follow dietary laws for keeping kosher. Yad Ezra serves as an emergency food pantry as well.

“We never turn anybody away,” said Executive Director Daniella HarPaz Mechnikov.

Based in Berkeley, Yad Ezra serves clients all over Michigan, with most in Oakland and Wayne counties.

Last year, Mechnikov said, Yad Ezra served around 27,000 individuals, a 28% increase from 2022. The largest increase, Mechnikov observed, was in families with children.

Such organizations do fundraising and seek foundation grants, with most revenue coming from individual donors.

“We have gotten some grants from organizations, but none of them have been large enough to be a major part of our budget,” Mechnikov said.

Even so, those individual grants have doubled the agency’s budget since 2021.

However, it’s also doubled the number of people it feeds

Mechnikov stressed the importance of increasing fundraising in the future.

“We’re not alone,” said Mechnikov. “Every food pantry in Michigan is going to tell you a similar story, I think.”

Looking forward, Almanza stressed the importance of upcoming public policy decisions.

“This is a Farm Bill year,” Almanza said, referring to the federal government’s major agricultural legislation that is revised roughly every five years. In addition to agriculture programs, the bill sets policy for federal food assistance.

The anticipated 2024 Farm Bill, led by the chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry,Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, would support Michigan farmers and families, Almanza says.

“We want to see those programs strengthened and protected, not cut, because any cuts to those types of programs right now would really hurt Michigan families,” Almanza said.

Anish Topiwala reports for Capital News Service. 

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