During pandemic, food banks and rescues innovate to feed more Michiganders than ever before

Despite the many challenges the pandemic has presented, food organizations have quickly restructured their operations to meet unprecedented demand. 

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.


Since COVID-19 hit Michigan, the state’s food banks and food rescues have faced drastic increases in demand. By the end of May, Michigan’s unemployment rate had soared to 22.7%, nearly matching the nationwide unemployment rate during the Great Depression. While many Michiganders have been able to make do with unemployment benefits, others face food insecurity.

Phil Knight.

“We’ve seen a marked increase in need,” says Dr. Philip Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan (FBCM). “First, from students and families dependent on free and reduced school lunches, the most innocent population. Second, from senior citizens, who are the most vulnerable. Third, from people who have never had to navigate the emergency food network prior to COVID-19.”


FBCM oversees seven Feeding America food banks, serving Michigan’s 83 counties. Prior to mid-March, its network distributed up to 2.8 million pounds of food a week. Since COVID-19, those distributions increased to 4 million pounds. Food rescue operations are also seeing huge increases in the number of people seeking emergency food. Christopher Ivey is director of marketing and communications for Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue serving Metro Detroit. He says Forgotten Harvest has seen demand increase by over 50%, as a recent University of Michigan survey showed a 48% unemployment rate in Detroit.


“We’re trying to get as much food as we can and get it out to the people that need it quickly,” Ivey says.


Washtenaw County nonprofit Food Gatherers distributes more than 6 million pounds of food annually to agencies and programs providing hot meals, nutritious snacks, and emergency groceries to income-challenged residents.


“Some of our pantries reported a 30% increase. Some reported a 300% increase in the number of people seeking assistance,” says Eileen Spring, Food Gatherers president and CEO. “40% are new clients who are accessing emergency food for the very first time.”
Eileen Spring.


Meeting the demand


Panic buying at grocery stores as well as closures of restaurants and catering businesses eliminated the major sources of donated food that Michigan’s food banks and rescues usually rely on. Because more people are eating at home instead of eating out, grocery stores still have little surplus to offer.


“Many of our food donors are restaurants, caterers, and banquet halls,” says Samantha McKenzie, president and CEO of Hidden Harvest, a food rescue serving the Great Lakes Bay region. “That first week of the stay-at-home [order], donations were heavy with all the prepared food and no parties happening. Now, those sources have dried up completely.”

Samantha McKenzie.

Before the pandemic, grocery stores were Food Gatherers’ main source of food donations.


“When the stay-at-home order was first issued, pretty much overnight we lost a huge portion of our regular food supply as well as our labor force,” Spring says. “Many of our volunteers are in a higher risk category given their age and other issues.”


Despite the many challenges the pandemic presented, organizations worked quickly to restructure their operations to meet demand. After coming perilously close to running out of food, Food Gatherers raised funds to purchase food, rented warehouse space to capture truckloads of donated food, and supported pantries with technology and small grants.


“We navigated those dark days well and have since been able to bounce back and relearn how to procure food in these new circumstances,” Spring says. “So far, so good. Two weeks from now, we could be in a different place.”

Michigan National Guard members volunteer at Food Gatherers.

Hidden Harvest was able to meet the rising demand by recruiting new food donors and enlisting in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, which purchases farmers’ produce and then distributes it to families in need.


“We knew that farmers were dumping product, so the USDA bought up every little bit that they could and now they are donating it,” McKenzie says. “We are delivering 1,200 family produce boxes a week to food pantries and meal programs. They can send home that 20-pound box of mixed produce with their clients.”


Forgotten Harvest had also relied on grocery store surplus. To replace the lost source, it has supplemented food rescue operations by sourcing surplus foods through federal government programs and purchasing shelf-stable items.


“We’ve changed lots of things. Now that the food is back in the grocery stores, people are still eating more at home so the demand on grocery store shelves remains high,” Ivey says. “One of the biggest changes is that typically we didn’t pay for all the food that we got. We had to fundraise to buy extra food, especially shelf-stable foods.”


Because many charitable food agencies and pantries shut down due to the pandemic, Forgotten Harvest set up weekly distribution to 17 mobile emergency food sites in Detroit. Approximately 350 to 700 families line up at each site for contact-free pickup, with volunteers placing food boxes in clients’ car trunks. As Forgotten Harvest received most of the foods in large amounts, additional volunteers repackage items and create food boxes containing family-sized portions.

Food distribution at Forgotten Harvest.

“Black beans come in a giant bag, 4,000 pounds. We have volunteers scoop them into gallon-sized Ziploc bags for each family, about two and half pounds. The same goes for rice and lentils. These are all really good staples,” Ivey says. “Feeding the community is first and foremost, but keeping the community safe, staff and clients, is important, too. We take that part very seriously.”


A partnership with the state of Michigan allowed FBCM to purchase shelf-stable food from Meijer grocery stores, with the cost reimbursed by FEMA. Knight says FBCM staff worked with five different departments of Michigan government to create that partnership in nine days.


“It was a really an amazing thing for Michigan,” Knight says. “… It was pretty miraculous.”


Knight also credits the Michigan Farm Bureau and farm commodity groups like the Michigan Potato Industry Commission, Michigan Bean Commission, and Michigan Milk Producers Association for donating funds and food.


“It’s been one of the stories in the midst of all the political aggravation that’s a nonpartisan issue everybody can agree about,” he says. “People should not have to worry about what they are going to eat or feed their kids at any time, particularly in a pandemic.”


More work to do


Despite the programs underway, Spring believes many people are not accessing the food they need. They may be unaware of available programs, unaware that they qualify for benefits, or resistant to accepting emergency food because of the associated stigma.


Markell Miller, director of community food programs for Food Gatherers, notes that COVID-19 has exposed many issues and challenges with the food supply chain. She says Washtenaw County has fared better than others because it’s home to a large number of small farmers. Other counties have fewer locally grown foods to access. Overall, Michigan lacks adequate food processing capabilities, especially for livestock.


“A lot of the people most affected and most at risk are serving meals or providing food,” Spring adds. “A lot of folks working in grocery stores don’t have paid time off or adequate pay. I really hope this calls attention to these things.”


Meanwhile, Michigan’s food banks, food rescues, and emergency food organizations are feeding more Michiganders than ever before.


“They put their lives and health at risk every day, serving people, … filling boxes, loading trucks, distributing to people in lines of cars miles long,” Knight says. “[We’re] watching people who, a minute ago, didn’t have enough food and now, all of a sudden, they have cheese, fresh vegetables, and shelf-stable items. When I watch that relief wash over them, listen to them say ‘Thank you,’ those are the golden moments.”


A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Food Gatherers photos by Doug Coombe. Samantha McKenzie photo by Ben Tierney. Forgotten Harvest photos courtesy of Forgotten Harvest.