FLINT, Michigan -- When James Riley, 68, retired in 2014, he was receiving $16 in food stamps from the state of Michigan to feed himself and his family.
“That's when I really got more into the food drive at the Martus Luna Food Pantry,” Riley said. “You know, your income is different when you retire.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe financial hardship and uncertainty for many Flint residents. And the fear and pains of hunger is a daily battle for an increasing number of people in the community.
“It's no joke when you wake up and you don't have water or food,” Riley said. “Now people see it, at first they didn't.”
Riley is not just overcoming financial stressors, he’s also dealing with personal tragedy. Nine months ago, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after her diagnosis.
“... It was all I could do to survive with the help of the (pantry),” he said. “I help them out too, that way I can let people know we got to survive. Life goes and throws things at you, you can’t give up. That's my goal.”
Riley, among many other Flint residents, depends on the Martus Luna Food Pantry (2101 Lewis Street in Flint). Riley has been going since it formed in 2003.
“I told them (at the pantry), regardless of how things may be, we will survive and I love them,” he said. “The things that you go through, (people) just don't know. Other people in line are also suffering. If the food bank left that area we would be in a lot of trouble.”
Martus Luna partners with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to provide weekly distributions. The pantry was formed in honor of Flint Police Officers Roger Luna and Ryan Martus, who were killed in a hunting accident. Martus Luna became a partner of the Food Bank in 2013.
Over the last three years, Martus Luna has served between 18,000 and 22,000 people per year at their distributions. But, like many food-providing organizations all over the country, that number has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Martus Luna is providing food to about 6,000 people per month.
“A lot of people have misperceptions of who is hungry,” said Kara Ross, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. “A lot of times, it's your neighbor or someone in your family. Everyone is really only one check away from an emergency. So a lot of times, most of the people we serve are actually working individuals or they are our vulnerable populations: our senior citizens, maybe who don't have family in the area to check on them, and also children.”
Chris Ridley, chair of UAW Local 598, helps put together food boxes on the outdoor assembly line for food distribution at the Martus Luna Pantry.Chris Ridley, chair for UAW Local 598, volunteers monthly with the Martus Luna Pantry, which holds a food distribution every Wednesday. He said the increase in numbers is visible. “There used to be 100 to maybe 200 families and now it’s upwards of 300 plus every time.”
Art Luna, president of the Martus Luna Food Pantry, described the work the organization does as “a community effort.” The increased demand for food combined with the need for more space to accommodate social distancing and other COVID-19 safety precautions, in fact, has the organization looking for a new location.
“We’re trying to buy a building on Fenton Road through the (Genesee County) Land Bank,” Luna said. “We want to expand, our board and our volunteers, we want to do like a supermarket. People can pick what they want, because not everyone eats the same. You’ll sign up for the date that you can come and do your shopping.”.
Art Luna watches Flint residents vehicles line up the Martus Luna pantry on a food distribution day.Luna and the other team members at the pantry are incredibly passionate about their work and service for Flint residents.
“We also take food to homebound residents,” he said. “One of our volunteers took 30 boxes and dropped off food to Burton seniors. There’s volunteers that take 10 boxes here or 30 boxes over there.”
Luna wakes up at 4 a.m. every Wednesday and meets the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan truck at the pantry at 6:30 a.m. “You see all the cars out there? There’s kids in there. Helping people, it is hard to put in words. It’s not just me, it's all our volunteers,” Luna said, pointing at the line during a November distribution.
In 2018 ,The Martus Luna pantry won the Michigan Harvest Gathering Beacon of Light Award.
“There are a lot of people that are hurting for certain things,” Luna said. “People get food stamps and hope they are covered. We buy a lot of stuff that stamps don't cover. Diapers and stuff they can't buy, we buy and give them out. We don't just do food. Anybody that needs food just come. There are no restrictions. We don’t care where you live. Right now we are in a pandemic, and that tops everything.”
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is trying to raise $800,000 for its holiday campaign this year - enough to provide 4.8 millions meals into the community through its network of partners like Martus Luna. Businesses and organizations can do ornament sales, register round-ups, or other fundraisers. Individuals and organizations can organize and participate in virtual food drives to raise money - every dollar raised allows the Food Bank to provide six meals. Individual donations can also be made online.
“Money is the most important part of our work,” Ross said. “We have a lot of our food that is donated but we have to pay for transportation to get it here to Michigan. So every dollar is six meals. We can maximize and leverage that contribution to the Food Bank.”
The Food Bank serves 22 counties in Michigan. Ross said that typically, the food insecurity rate in those counties is around 14 percent. During the pandemic, that number has grown to nearly 40 percent. Pantries and organizations like Martus Luna have been lifesaving for people in need.
“I thank god for Art and Sylvia (McCown) being around me,” Riley said. “It'll be pouring rain and Sylvia will sit out there, making sure everyone gets food.”
Raising awareness for the need for food in Michigan is the first step in helping local Flint residents this holiday season. Riley, along with so many other residents, depend on the work of the Food Bank, local pantries, and volunteers.
“... If people only knew some of the things people go through here in Flint,” Riley said.