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Food insecurity increasing during the pandemic

By Hillary Brody Anchill

One of the many indelible images over the past year is that of cars filling parking lots, drivers waiting in hours-long lines to pick up food so that they and their families will have food to eat. At the same time, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, farms were filled with rotting crops, and gallons upon gallons of milk were dumped, food going to waste instead of making it to the tables of those in need. Food insecurity is unfortunately not a new issue, but the coronavirus pandemic, and its ensuing economic devastation, has left millions more Americans without necessary access to food.

“When you’re food insecure, you have one problem. You don’t have two,” describes Dr. Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan and chair of the Food Security Council. “Your mind is consumed with the idea of what am I going to get my kids to eat, and what am I going to eat? You’re held captive by that toxic stress until you solve it. Now if you solve it, your mind’s free, and you can think about the other challenges you might have. That’s what you see at a food distribution.”

Prior to March 2020, according to Knight, Michigan’s food insecurity rate was 13.6 percent of the population, or roughly 1,359,650 people, about 400,000 of which were children. As of January 2021, Michigan’s food insecurity rate is 19.1 percent. Over 600,000 of those are children. In Oakland County, the food insecurity rate has jumped from 10.1 percent of the population prior to COVID-19 to 15.1 percent.

Nationally, more than 50 million people, and 17 million children – one in six Americans and one in four children – were food insecure in 2020, an increase of nearly 50 percent. Projections, Knight said, indicate that food insecurity will continue to be elevated until June 2022. As such, his network of seven food banks statewide, including Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest in southeast Michigan, play critical roles in ensuring that those in need have access to food. Knight pointed out that “there is not a food shortage. There never has been through this entire pandemic,” despite empty grocery shelves and purchasing limits at big box stores on select goods.

His role is ensuring that food gets to those who need it.

The Food Bank Council has averaged a distribution of approximately 4.5 million pounds of food per week since the pandemic began, with several weeks topping more than 5 million pounds of food. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, they averaged 2.6 million pounds of emergency food each week.

With mass unemployment, closed schools and visitor restrictions at senior centers, more Americans are facing food insecurity than ever before. Knight breaks down those who need food assistance into four groups: the innocent, or children; the vulnerable – senior citizens and those whose health makes it difficult to engage during a health crisis; the unexpected, or the many workers who have been laid off or furloughed due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic; and the indefinite. “We are seeing about 50 percent, on average across the state, more need than what we saw prior to the pandemic. So how are we meeting that need?” he asked.

For those experiencing food insecurity for the first time, the “unexpected” the Food Bank Council identifies as those who “were working, they never thought they wouldn’t be working, and now they can’t work because of the pandemic,” navigating the emergency food network may be the most daunting.

Since the pandemic first began, several different initiatives from the federal government have increased emergency funding so that states could purchase more food.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed Congress in April 2020, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) provided financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who had their supply chain disrupted due to COVID-19. This included two rounds of funding throughout 2020.

An additional component of CFAP is the Farmers to Family Food Box Program. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) contracted with national, regional, and local distributors who were impacted by the disruption to the food service business (including those who provided food to restaurants, hotels, and schools) in order to get fresh produce, dairy and meat to the general public. From May 15 through December 31, 2020, approximately 132.7 million pounds of food boxes were distributed nationally through area food banks and pantries, totaling approximately $4 billion worth of food. Each box contained approximately 30 pounds of food. With the passage of the COVID-19 relief package on December 21, 2020, the Family Food Box Program has been extended, allowing for the purchase of an additional $1.5 billion worth of food. It is expected that food box distribution will begin again in late January.

Trade mitigation programs that were already in place to help farmers who suffered from trade retaliation by foreign nations have also expanded. Through the Food Purchase and Distribution Program (FPDP), the USDA buys food directly from American farmers. The majority of this food is then provided to states for distribution to food banks and food pantries that participate in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). TEFAP provides supplemental food for low-income Americans at no cost. Diane Golzynski, director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services at the Michigan Department of Education, said that the state has distributed $22 million through TEFAP. The state will get an additional $12 million out of the $400 million TEFAP funding that was part of the COVID relief bill.

Through all of these commodities programs enacted in 2020, Golzynski said that the state has distributed $125 million worth of food to food banks. Additionally, more than 1.2 million Michiganders are now receiving the maximum amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and pandemic EBT cards are available for families who make too much for SNAP, but whose children qualify for free or reduced school meals.

Locally, those who have been able to increase their food distribution thanks to these measures include Gleaners Community Food Bank and Forgotten Harvest, both of which benefit from the advocacy and resource allocation from the Food Bank Council of Michigan. Both Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest serve Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, while Gleaners also serves Livingston and Monroe counties. Prior to the pandemic, according to Stacy Averill, Gleaners’ Vice President of Community Giving, Gleaners distributed between 3.5 and 4 million pounds of food each month. Throughout the pandemic, she said that they are giving out double that, averaging 150,000 households and 7 million pounds of food are being distributed, with a record 7.7 million pounds of food distributed in December 2020 alone. She expects these numbers will hold through the winter.

Kirk Mayes, CEO of Forgotten Harvest, sees similar increases, noting that they’re serving 40 to 50 percent more people than previous years.

Traditionally, distribution sites for the food banks include food pantries, soup kitchens, churches and community and senior centers. As Lea Luger, executive director of Yad Ezra, southeast Michigan’s Kosher food pantry, located in Oak Park, put it, “We all have a role in this road from farmer to family. There are a lot of different stops. So we [pantries] are the last stop in terms of getting it to the families in need.”

Typically, food pantries are run by volunteers at local churches and community centers; Yad Ezra is an independent non-profit with a paid staff. Yad Ezra is able to provide food to low income families through a combination of the food they receive through the USDA and the food banks, as well as supplemental shopping they do thanks to donations. Prior to COVID-19, they served about 1,100 families, or approximately 2,400 individuals a month. They are now serving about 1,250 families a month, a 15 percent increase since last March.

The delivery mechanisms for food distribution have altered significantly since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, putting a strain on organizations that need to get more food to more people, while simultaneously having seen their volunteer base decimated. Mayes described that, “in the past,” Forgotten Harvest would “drop off food at our agency partners and divide up the boxes, congregant meals. With COVID, we’ve had to conduct distributions ourselves.” He said that there are six to seven “rolling distributions” a day at different sites throughout the tri-county area, as well as car drops and mobile pantries. Additionally, he said they are still serving a portion of their more than 200 agency partners, which includes churches, schools and community centers.

Gleaners was able to “adapt and launch additional mobile sites within about a week of the closures [in March] because we already had that distribution model, we already had drive-through distributions so we could take that model and bring it scale,” recalled Averill of how quickly they were able to address the increase in demand for food thanks, in large part, to having operated their School Food Mobile pantries for years. Currently, they have approximately 100 school food mobile and senior distribution locations, and by February, she anticipates that they will have an additional 20 new sites, as well as an additional 70 new public community sites. While the school and senior distributions require invitations to be served, “the 70 additional community mobile sites are open to the public and all of them are spaced out throughout the five counties we serve.” Averill said that all mobile distributions are listed on the Gleaners website with both maps and calendars. “Anybody can go and show up at a site during the distribution window and park in line.” She emphasized that no registration or paperwork is required.

Yad Ezra previously had a volunteer base of around 150 individuals a month who helped with everything from “client intake, filling out shopping lists, handing out chicken, packing up the food, escorting them to their car and helping load in the trunk,” according to Luger. After a brief stint offering curbside groceries, Yad Ezra now delivers boxes of food in three different sizes, put together with six staff members and delivered by drivers from Jewish Family Services. She said that using Uber and Lyft drivers was also a future possibility, depending on need.

Noting the elimination of volunteers across agencies, Knight from the Food Bank Council says that much of this work would not have been able to happen had not Governor Gretchen Whitmer called for the Michigan National Guard to aid humanitarian purposes. “We’ve averaged 86 members of the guard at all seven of our food banks. There is no way we could have done this increase without them.”

While most of the food distribution sites have adapted to curbside pickups and contact-less mobile pantries, those that offer food delivery are vital because many elderly people do not have access to the same methods of transportation that they had prior to the pandemic. Last year, Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership, was able to provide 36,000 locally-sourced free farm boxes with funding from the USDA that they distributed through six or seven community partners, which he said came from “long-standing relations with senior homes throughout the market. We used to partner with them to get seniors out to our Tuesday markets and provided bus transportation. That funding went to delivering good food to them instead.”

Schools play a critical role in both getting food to children as well as serving as general community food distribution sites. It is an understatement to say that children have had their school year disrupted tremendously, with most districts in Oakland County and throughout metro Detroit teaching their students virtually most of the time. With kids not attending school in-person, it was imperative that those who previously had relied on free and reduced lunches still have access to meals. In October 2018, 31.6 percent of Oakland County students were eligible for free or reduced meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch and Breakfast Program. In October 2019, the figure was nearly the same, with 32.6 percent eligibility. Through June 30, 2021, all 1.5 million public school children in Michigan under the age of 18, and those with special needs under the age of 26, are entitled to free meals.

Lori Adkins, Oakland Schools childhood nutrition consultant, said that regardless of circumstance, offering free meals to all students “helps extend the food budget. It’s a piece of school while the kids are at home.”

In the Bloomfield Hills School district, approximately 10 percent of the student population of 5,987 is eligible for free or reduced meals this school year, a number consistent from the 2019-2020 and 2018-2019 school years. This year, though, all students may receive free meals. School districts post their monthly menus online along with the distribution sites. All meals include a protein, whole grain, three-quarters of a cup of fruits and veggies, and one percent milk. Marianne Romsek, food service director for Bloomfield Hills Schools, said that since the second round of school closures in November, they are currently averaging a distribution of between 4,500 to 5,000 meals a week. “When we open schools, I expect those numbers to be closer to 16,000 a week,” Romsek said.

When schools were open in a hybrid model, free meals were served in all schools, with curbside pickup available at Bloomfield Hills High School to those attending school virtually. When the schools closed, they offered curbside service both at the high school and East Hills Middle School. Notably, Romsek stressed that “children receiving meals do not have to be from our district; parents or caregivers can pick up meals on behalf of children, and the honor system is used to pass out meals in our district. No identification is required.”

With schools opening to in-person learning, curbside food pickup will continue for families, Romsek said, on Mondays and Thursdays at Bloomfield Hills High School from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for virtual students and families “that choose to pick up food from us.”

While all students are eligible for free meals, local demand has varied. Adkins described that Oakland Schools, the county's intermediate school district, uses the data from prior weeks to determine exactly how much food to provide to each site to help mitigate waste. Additionally, some districts, like Birmingham and West Bloomfield, have the ability to pre-order online so that they know exactly how much food to provide. The districts post their menus, as well as their distribution schedules, online and through their social media channels.

Getting the food to the school districts, however, has been challenging. Adkins described a process that, due to supply chain issues, found schools “competing with convenience stores and grocery stores, since everyone wants pre-wrapped sandwiches and muffins.” She said that the “schools have had to be very flexible in making menu changes to get the food out that’s available.” A bright spot in Bloomfield Hills is that the district “recently received a grant to help pay for local produce, and are now including Michigan produce daily,” according to Romsek.

With the return to in-person learning, Adkins said that food production will streamline as they can go back to bulk food production and not rely on single-serving sizes. Although she anticipated that the demand will increase, as it will be easier for kids to get the food and give parents one less thing to worry about, the districts will “return to our normal production and have a better economy of scale.”

Schools have also been essential as distribution sites for the Family Food Box Program. “When parents came to pick up school lunches, they could pick up these boxes from the USDA at the same time,” said Adkins.

At Birmingham Public Schools, Anne Cron, director of communications and family engagement, said it has been difficult to ascertain the number of students and families accessing free meals.