Emergency food programs are plentiful in Michigan – but many residents are still going hungry

Michigan has hundreds of food programs available for those struggling with food insecurity – but emergency food still isn't reaching countless state residents who desperately need it.

Michigan has hundreds of food programs available for those struggling with food insecurity – but emergency food still isn't reaching countless state residents who desperately need it.


That's according to the Michigan Food Environment Scan, a recent report compiled by the Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI) and commissioned by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. MPHI researchers took a look at the state's vast system of food banks and emergency food resources to determine where interventions are currently located and where food-insecure residents are falling through the cracks.

Michelle Napier-Dunnings.

"I think our resources are plentiful. One of the biggest challenges is how those resources are accessed," says Michelle Napier-Dunnings, MPHI's chief communications officer. "We are still trying to figure out what the elements of the pathway are to build that local food system."


Across Michigan, the report identified 465 nonprofits, universities, and government agencies that provide 583 unique food programs. Every county in Michigan has at least one food program. However, MPHI identified seven cities — Bay City, Benton Harbor, Flint, Jackson, Muskegon, Port Huron, and Saginaw — that have limited access to healthy, affordable foods in neighborhoods; a high number of residents with low income; and a high number of residents receiving SNAP benefits. MPHI also determined that 11 cities – Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Bay City, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Marquette, Port Huron, and Saginaw – did not have enough emergency food programming to cover local needs. Five cities – Bay City, Flint, Jackson, Port Huron, and Saginaw – made both lists.


In addition to these shortfalls in population centers, the report found support gaps for rural Michiganders facing food insecurity. 26% of all Michigan food programs are in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, or Traverse City, while 64% of Michigan counties are served by six or fewer food programs.


"When we talk about food insecurity, in general, we are talking about impoverished communities, both urban and rural," Napier-Dunnings says. "These communities have different issues in terms of social determinants of health and what they look like – for instance, transportation. Clearly you have greater geographical distances in a rural community, but even in an urban community you may have sporadic transportation and community members who are disconnected and isolated. It's difficult if you have to change buses three times while carrying groceries."


Widening gaps under COVID-19


MPHI's research was carried out before COVID-19 hit Michigan, but the issues it identified have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Food Bank of Eastern Michigan (FBEM) serves a 22-county area, including four of the five cities that MPHI identified as lacking emergency food programming to cover local needs and having low socioeconomic status/healthy food access. FBEM's mobile pantry program sends semi-trucks filled with fresh meat, produce, milk, and shelf-stable foods to locations throughout the 22-county area it serves. Kara Ross, FBEM's CEO, says FBEM had sent out 20 trucks a week pre-pandemic, but it has nearly tripled that number to an average of 55 trucks per week since the pandemic hit.

A Food Bank of Eastern Michigan distribution at the Martus Luna Food Pantry in Flint.

"We are seeing that cities with larger populations – Bay City, Saginaw, Flint, and Port Huron – have higher numbers," Ross says. "A larger percentage of their population has higher need. We send the trucks where the need is, where the food deserts are, where the low-income people live."


FBEM has delivered 38 million pounds of food since the first COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were put in place. Ross says that before the pandemic, 14% of people living in FBEM's service area were food insecure. Since March, that number has risen to 40%. And, when the mobile pantry trucks are emptied at each of the sites, about 15% of the people who come for food are turned away empty-handed.


"There's a lot of struggles for families right now, especially when you face winter," Ross says. "Do you pay your heat bill or go to the grocery store?"


Erin Skidmore, good food systems director of Access of West Michigan, believes part of the problem is that even emergency food is not accessible to all, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erin Skidmore, good food systems director of Access of West Michigan.

"We've set up this charity food system that continues asking people to come to us," Skidmore says. "How do we make delivery options more available for people experiencing COVID-19 who have to quarantine, or are afraid to leave and don't feel safe going out?"


Meeting needs


Those responsible for providing emergency food agree that myriad solutions are needed to better fill the gaps. Some of those solutions require changes in the way food programs operate. For example, MPHI's report found that migrant workers, immigrants, and those speaking languages other than English are among those highest at risk for food insecurity.


"We know that here in West Michigan we have a large population of farm workers who are definitely not being treated fairly," Skidmore says. "The Latinx population is not feeling safe currently, especially those who are considered undocumented. Then you add the COVID-19 scare on top of that. Information isn't widely available, approachable, or accessible. People don't know where to go in times like this. And even if they do know where those meal sites and pantries are, are they welcoming, inclusive, and does the staff speak the various languages represented in the neighborhood?"


Others unable to find enough healthy food to eat include working folks above poverty level who do not earn a living wage, older adults, small farmers, school-aged children, rural African-Americans, and tribal communities. Geographical gaps include the Upper Peninsula, the northeast Lower Peninsula, and counties south of I-94.


"We don't have enough housing that is truly affordable, that meets people's needs. This impacts the grocery budget," Skidmore says. "Where is housing available? What is the food landscape of those neighborhoods? And do they have access to transportation?"


Other solutions require broader systemic shifts.


"Meaningful employment, full-time, with benefits and wages that can help sustain a family or household, is what would be most helpful," Ross says. "There's not that many places where you can get full-time employment, especially during the pandemic. I've heard stories of people holding down two or three retail or service industry jobs, or working at places at 50% capacity and not getting their hours. A lot of families are facing eviction. That's something we need to have support around, as well."

Kara Ross.

Skidmore agrees that more living-wage jobs are needed, and adds that they need to be truly open to all applicants.


"A lot of businesses and organizations have bias that is preventing wonderful people from having access to those jobs and opportunities," she says. "We have to call out structural and systemic racism that contribute greatly to food insecurity in our own community and across the U.S."


Looking ahead


In response to this unmet need, the MPHI report recommends that the state and its communities create more policies and programs for school-aged children in school settings. Another recommendation speaks to establishing large-scale collaboratives, for example food hubs, that strengthen food systems, local economies, and access to healthy food. The report also recommends expanded investment in programs like Ten Cents a Meal, which match funds for local food purchases for individuals and organizations. MPHI also stresses the importance of increasing access to all programs by making them culturally appropriate—and truly accessible to the people they serve.

An Air Force Reserve member works in the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan warehouse.

Skidmore says now is the time to "change some policies and practices, get creative, shift power, and make change that really needs to happen."


"I would love to be able to look back on this time we're experiencing now and realize that we addressed some of these things and we see people are less reliant on food pantries," she says. "... We have a lot of work to do. It would be great to have less and less people lining up at a food site next time there's a disaster."


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.


Kara Ross/Food Bank of Eastern Michigan photos by Jenifer Veloso. Erin Skidmore photo by Adam Bird. Michelle Napier-Dunnings photo courtesy of Michelle Napier-Dunnings.