When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic nearly two years ago to the day, South Michigan Food Bank knew that we had to continue feeding people while keeping them as safe and healthy as possible. Our response was a community effort — donors, volunteers, and community partners all worked together to ensure no one in South Michigan went hungry. We and our 335 hunger relief partners saw more and more families get in line at food sites. We served all of them by opening more food sites in areas where they were most needed and distributing more food in 2020 than we had in our 38-year history — a total of 14.6 million pounds. This response was a community effort — donors, volunteers, and community partners all worked together to ensure no one in South Michigan went hungry.
The unemployment rate in Michigan hit a peak of 15% in April 2020; over 1 million people were without a job and steady income to support themselves and their loved ones. Families in our community were having trouble covering essential costs like housing, bills, necessities — and food. For many, this was the first time they had sought help to fill their table. We were honored to be a resource for our community members, to provide food as a pathway back to financial stability for 33,000 people each day by minimizing their grocery bills.
Now, the Michigan unemployment rate has steeply decreased to 5% (a cause for great celebration). At the same time, we see the rate of inflation nearing 8%. So, two years into the pandemic, our neighbors are back to work but are spending their earnings on products that are more expensive than they have ever been. Amid an economy with now-costly essentials, like utility bills and gas, South Michigan Food Bank continues to ensure our neighbors have enough food by providing over 1 million pounds of food to our counties every month. Hand-in-hand with food’s high cost, it is also limited in quantity and variety in grocery stores nationwide.
“The challenge is that a shortage of food does not paint the whole picture,” Marsha, South Michigan Food Bank COO, says. “These interruptions mean we’re facing an array of obstacles before food even arrives at our warehouse.” These challenges include limited variety and quantities, 10–30% cost increases, and longer shipping timelines. In the first quarter of 2022, we have seen 60% more of our incoming orders canceled, most being fresh produce or meat, as compared to last year. And a truckload of food that used to cost between $28,000 and $32,000 now costs $36,000 to $40,000. Due to these challenges, South Michigan Food Bank is spending 50% more of the food we distribute than we were in 2020.
Despite these new, evolving challenges, our committed team members, like Marsha and Mike, find that we can still provide excellent service to our clients and our distribution partners, like pantries and Fresh Food Distributions. As our warehouse team stays inventive and creative to get food into the building and out to our neighbors, they use industry knowledge, relationships with food retail partners, and each other’s expertise to stay ahead of the curve.
“It takes more communication. We make more decisions together and make sure everyone is in tune with what we’re getting in,” Mike says. They work collaboratively to allocate food to each of our programs and acquire as much variety as possible, making sure that everyone in our eight counties still has access to well-rounded meals.
Our partners, who run our programs like pantries and Fresh Food Distributions, have reached outside of their norms to continue serving the community, acquiring different brands and different volumes of classic items, like cereal and pasta sauce. Many of our food sites are still seeing hundreds of clients at every distribution who are seeking help so they can allocate their limited funds to necessities other than expensive food offered at stores.
One South Michigan Food Bank client visiting a food site had just been laid off and though he had paid all his bills and found work again, he didn’t have any money for food. He rushed in just before the site was closing and volunteers helped load his truck with food for the week. “I can never express how much this means to my family. I called you and you were there with smiling faces and never questioned me. I don’t know how we would have eaten without you.”
With the service and commitment of our amazing supporters, we and our partners continue standing strong to guarantee that everyone in South Michigan has groceries to fill their table.