Michigan's stressed food banks running dangerously low as demand skyrockets

Antonio DeBerry didn't have a choice. He had to wake up early on Thursday to wait in line for produce before thunderstorms hit Detroit, which forced the nearby drive-thru food bank to pause handouts.

After losing everything in Hurricane Michael, DeBerry left Florida and returned to his hometown of Detroit nine months ago, only to encounter the COVID-19 pandemic within months. Thursday was the second time he popped open his trunk at the temporary food bank at Puritan and Livernois, which he said has been "a saving grace."

"I left Panama City after 11 years, moved back here to be an academic and I'm attending Wayne County Community College ... then the outbreak jumped off so I started all over again after losing everything I had," said DeBerry, 54. "No one expects to have to go to a food bank, but I'm grateful they are here and very helpful."

The COVID-19 pandemic has Michigan families lining up early and often at emergency food sites, where organizers are overrun as they work to accommodate a tsunami of residents in need and brace for a potential second wave of the virus this fall. 

Antonio DeBerry, 54, gives a Gleaners staffer his information before entering a Detroit food bank drive-thru on May 14, 2020.

Monica Boomer, chief impact officer for the Inkster-based nonprofit Zaman International, said demand at her organization alone has "skyrocketed," from serving 150 to 200 families per month to more than 3,000 in the first month after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed a statewide shutdown, forcing officials to secure supplemental food boxes to cope with shortfalls. 

"The demand has gone up so high that we're right now looking at ways to sustain this because when the stay-at-home order is lifted, it doesn't mean this is no longer an issue for anyone," said Boomer, noting Zaman is serving more families per week than it had per month prior to the outbreak. "Supplies for food boxes are getting dangerously low. That's an added concern for us."

Workers load food into vehicles during a Gleaners food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente center, in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

The state's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is touting industry efforts to help meet needs that are four times higher than normal. But it also warns food banks are "experiencing significant trouble" securing enough food and that donations remain "desperately needed," said Jennifer Holton, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email.

Gleaners Community Food Bank has set up 66 mobile drive-thru or walk-up sites in direct response to the pandemic throughout its five-county service area.

In March and April 2019, Gleaners distributed 7.5 million pounds of food, which is on par with the average. At the same time this year, it passed out 10.8 million pounds, said Stacy Averill, senior director of community giving with Gleaners, one of the state's seven Feeding America food banks.

"That's a large increase, and the majority is attributed to these additional distribution sites and through our partner agency networks," Averill said.

Gleaners is providing each household with 30 pounds of food in a single pickup, enough to last two to four weeks, depending on family size. Each site is serving about 275 to 300 households per distribution.

The needs, Averill said, are coming across the board, but many people are seeking support for the first time. Others, she said, are picking up for other families, too. 

"They’re quarantining together in a household to be able to take care of multiple generations and relying on each other," she said.

Detroit police officer A. Kellogg directs traffic for the hundreds of vehicles expected for a Gleaners food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente center, in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

Local police block off the main streets of the pick-up sites, where food banks often have long lines of cars. Drivers are asked for their name, ZIP code and how many households they are picking up for.

The increase in need has allowed Gleaners to swap their volunteers for hired staff, many of whom lost their former jobs due to the pandemic, the company said.

Ilene Kennerly, a pastor at Spirit Love Church on Puritan Street, helped organize the Gleaners site for the Fitzgerald neighborhood in Detroit to remain connected to the underserved community, she said.

"This is our fourth drive, and we've had about 300 people each time," said Kennerly, who started the church in July. "Our community is in a relatively low-income area, where there was a great need even before the pandemic. There's a lot of unemployment, individuals who don't have a high school diploma, and a lot are living in multiple housing situations. We're here to serve."

Robert and Ilene Kennerly, who pastor Spirit Love Church in  Detroit's Fitzgerald neighborhood, organized the Gleaner's drive-thru food bank for their neighborhood.

Feeding waves

The Food Bank Council of Michigan, the association for the seven Feeding America food banks serving the state's 83 counties, said food distribution is up 40% over the same time last year. And the network of 3,000 food pantries expects to provide food at the current levels at least through summer, said Phil Knight, the council's executive director. 

"In the midst of all this stress of living in a pandemic — something that hasn't happened to us in 100 years — the stress of being food insecure is just debilitating in and of itself," he said. "Living under that stress, that's why we're working as hard as we are."

The network, Knight said, is providing food to students and families who already had been receiving free and reduced breakfasts and lunches at schools, the state's vulnerable senior population, plus service industry and small business workers who never before needed the emergency network. 

"These three waves just stay on top of you," he said. "You don't really get a break."

Knight said the council's network distributed 205 million pounds of emergency food last year across Michigan. This year, he said, they are on track to "blow that number out of the water."

T.J. Robinson, the Cooking Matters coordinator for Gleaners, helps load apples into vehicles during a Gleaners food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente center, in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

The week prior to the shutdown of schools imposed in mid-March under Whitmer's executive order, the state's food banks distributed 440,000 pounds of food. A couple of weeks ago, Knight said, it shot up to 740,000 pounds.

Gleaners, the food bank council and Detroit Area Agency on Aging have collaborated on delivering food boxes to seniors quarantining at home.

Agency on Aging President and CEO Ronald S. Taylor said the organization was serving about 3,000 seniors per day prior to the outbreak. Now, it's approaching 9,000. 

"This is almost gone up like 300%. It's tripled," said Taylor, whose 40-year-old agency serves nine cities, including Detroit, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, Highland Park and the five Grosse Pointes.

Gilbert Lopez, the agency's director of nutrition services, said some seniors waiting for emergency, home-delivered meals are getting "Gleaners quarantine boxes" until they arrive. Each box, he said, contains about 24 pounds of shelf-stable foods.

Stephanie Hough, a temporary worker for Gleaners, helps prepare before the start of a food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente Center in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

Taylor noted the agency has partnered with such groups as Quicken Loans, the United Way and Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to secure $270,000 for more canned and boxed items for quarantine care packages. 

So far, Lopez added, partners have been able to "rise to the occasion" but "that concern is always there" that food will run out.

The agency created a workgroup to look at ways to address nutrition concerns for a long period and help figure out ways to build up the capacity to do it, like working with restaurants and other food suppliers, Taylor said. 

"We're trying to anticipate, and in many ways reimagine, what our service delivery system will need to look like ... to be able to provide services over the long haul," Taylor said. "I'm comfortable we'll be able to continue to be a value to this community."

Holton said the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will provide aid, but the food bank council won't receive food through the program until July, "well beyond the expected food gap food banks are facing right now."

Knight said the food supply chain is solid, but consumer overbuying at grocery stores adds strain.

"That's far more difficult to manage in the food supply chain than a shortage of something on the processor's or producer's end," he said. 

Holton noted multiple companies and associations have stepped up during the crisis, including McDonald’s, Sysco, Michigan Milk Producers, United Dairy Industry of Michigan, Meijer and the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

Meijer said in March that it was kicking in $2.2 million to support more than 400 food pantry partners, saying "our purpose is to enrich lives in the communities we serve." The drug company Pfizer recently doled out another $500,000 for state food banks. 

Nicole Lapointe, a temporary worker for Gleaners, loads food into a vehicle during a Gleaners food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente center, in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

What lies ahead

The state of Michigan is also working to procure emergency food under an agreement it reached in April with the food council after the network's chief supplier of canned, bottled and dry goods said it would cease operations because of challenges tied to the pandemic.

"Food donations are desperately needed to meet historically high demand at a time when food supplies are dangerously low, and collectively, we can make a huge difference," Holton said. 

The food and agriculture industry, Holton stressed, is "working nonstop to make sure that we all have food to eat."

From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the state agriculture office has been in contact with industry representatives and food banks, "hearing their concerns, answering questions, providing resources, solving problems and getting ready for what lies ahead," she said. 

For Zaman, an organization serving women and children in poverty, about 200 to 250 families are coming through weekly, prompting a mile-long backup for food at times. That's in addition to supplementary drives Zaman does throughout the community and with some area school districts, Boomer said.

From 2017-19, Zaman averaged around 140,000 pounds of food distributed per year through client-choice food pantry visits. Within the first 45 days of COVID-19 distributions, the organization has distributed over 91,000 pounds of food.

Temporary employee Kiera Scott prepares to load milk into vehicles during a Gleaners food bank pop-up in cooperation with the Roberto Clemente center, in southwest Detroit, May 6, 2020.

Additionally, there were about 1,900 visits to Zaman's client-choice food pantry annually over the same two-year period, serving around 6,500 individuals each year. Within the first 45 days of COVID-19 distributions, Zaman provided food to over 3,000 families, which represents more than 10,500 individuals, Boomer added. 

The numbers, she said, "show a marked increase in the number of families served" as the nonprofit has shifted to public drive-thru distributions.  

Like others in the state operating food pantries, Zaman has had some help; The Detroit Pistons and DTE Energy have chipped in on supplemental food and supplies. But still, there's worry it won't be enough. 

"Our broader concern is that all of this funding and generosity may end once people perceive the immediate threat as being over," Boomer said.

"Whereas from our perspective, we're planning to supplement our food outreach through the end of the year because they are forecasting a second spike in the fall."