For many Washtenaw County residents, the need for food assistance has risen dramatically as a result of the economic hardship and public health concerns brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food Gatherers, the largest anti-hunger organization serving Washtenaw County, has reported a 30-300% increase in visitors to its network of partner agencies. About 40% were first-time visitors who had never needed emergency food before.
In August, one of the parents visiting Food Gatherers’ Summer Food Service Program noted that programs like these have made it possible to feed her family.
“This food saved us through the whole summer,” said Sarah*, who attended the weekly mobile food distributions to pick up meals for her son. “After our food stamps ran out, it helped us get through the rest of the week.”
Food Gatherers’ staff affirm that Sarah’s story is similar to many Washtenaw County residents who struggle with food insecurity.
“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.”
A Perfect Storm for Food Banks
For food banks nationwide, the pandemic created a “perfect storm” of food insecurity and operational challenges. “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”, says Spring.
Specifically, the challenge for Food Gatherers has been to continue operations and safely distribute much-needed food without its 7,000+ volunteer corps, a decline in donated food, and disruptions to the national food 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 the largest annual total pounds of food distributed in its 31-year history – 7.8 million. To accomplish this Food Gatherers hired additional staff, increased its distribution schedule, forged new partnerships with local restaurants and the University of Michigan to increase donated food, and received additional support when the National Guard was deployed to the warehouse from April – July, and again in September.
The Future of Food Security
Feeding America, the national association of food banks, projects that food insecurity will increase in the months ahead. In Washtenaw County, the spike in food pantry visitors seen in the spring has not decreased and the amount of food distributed by Food Gatherers each month continues to break records.
While Food Gatherers and its partner programs are working to distribute more food to more people, securing 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 the next relief bill. An increase in SNAP benefits (food stamps) would be a great help for people like Sarah, whose benefits don’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.
To learn how you can become involved in the fight against hunger locally, please visit HERE or call 734-761-2796.
*Name has been changed
About Food Gatherers
Food Gatherers’ mission is to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in Washtenaw County. As the food bank and food rescue program for the county, we distribute more than 7.8 million pounds of food to 170 non-profit programs serving low-income adults, seniors, and children. For a list of our partner programs, or to learn more please visit www.foodgatherers.org or call (734) 761-2796.