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Metro Detroit food banks, pantries face high demand for the holidays

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Demand for emergency food assistance is rising this holiday season, putting pressure on several Metro Detroit food banks and pantries to meet the increased needs of families while dealing with dwindling pandemic aid.

Gleaners Community Food Bank, Forgotten Harvest and Lighthouse all say they've seen an uptick in need, largely driven by inflation. At Forgotten Harvest, the number of individuals served in September, October and November is up more than 20% from last year and demand is definitely higher, said Christopher Ivey, its director of marketing and communications.

“(With) the higher cost of gas and the higher cost of the goods on the shelves at the grocery stores we are seeing more and more people in our lines,” Ivey said. “Especially this time of year, heating cost rises, people are having to start to stretch their budgets further and further.”

Volunteers work to fill bins full of meal packages for distribution during a packing event at Gleaners Community Food Bank on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022 in Taylor. Food banks throughout Michigan are experiencing an uptick of demand ahead of the holidays.

Sarah Elkins, 34, a mother of three from Clarkston, knows what it's like to need a little extra help. She goes to her local Lighthouse food pantry when she is struggling to put food on the table. 

“I only do it when I desperately need it because there are people out in this world that probably need it more than me sometimes," said Elkins, who works as a part-time caregiver. "So I really got to be at very empty cupboards to go. They make sure I have something to feed my children when I need it. I can call, I know they’ll always be there to help me.”

With three children under the age of 15, Elkins said food is in high demand in her household but inflation and rising rent, gas and grocery prices can make it difficult to keep up.

“Once I feed them, they want more food and the price of food just keeps going up and up and up,” Elkins said. “Doesn't matter how much you get like, even if you budget it and calculate it all out at the end of the month you’ll still end up weeks without food.”

But Lighthouse always gives what they have available to her family and will help “feed your children just like they should be fed,” Elkins said.

High demand for emergency food

In response to the unprecedented demand for emergency food early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, local food banks received huge donations from the government. Demand stabilized but has begun to increase again with inflation.

“We still had significantly more (food) going out during the pandemic but we also had more to give out,” said Kristin Sokul, senior director of advancement communications at Gleaners Community Food Bank. “When inflation began to hit and groceries were more expensive and gas was more expensive and housing became more expensive, we started to see that need continue to tick up month after month.”

Gleaners secures, stores and distributes food to its network of more than 600 community partners such as food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and schools. The organization also distributes food directly to people in need at community mobile pantries throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties. 

“Across our partner network we've been seeing and hearing from them increased need for months,” Sokul said. “And at our community mobiles, the ones that we specifically run, we've seen a 40% increase in service year over year, so compared to November last year, this past November we saw a 40% increase.”

Volunteer Paul Kippert packs a meal package during a packing event at Gleaners Community Food Bank on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Taylor. Gleaners expects demand for food services to continue to increase this month.

Gleaners expects demand for food services to continue to increase this month, Sokul said. Families face higher utility bills as it gets colder and children are out of school and don’t have access to the breakfast and lunch that they otherwise would during the week. 

“All of these pressures are coming together. That makes need increase at this time. But it's compounded by the fact that we've been facing inflation for months and months now,” Sokul said. “Need can be a sudden and temporary crisis or it could be a result of systemic challenges to your household.”

Lighthouse in Oakland County distributes food through pantries in Clarkston, Southfield and Pontiac and gets a majority of its product through Gleaners, according to Ryan Hertz, Lighthouse CEO. It also does home deliveries for families who have transportation challenges. The organization is facing even higher demand now compared to early on in the pandemic, Hertz said. 

“In 2020 and 2021 it was kind of unique, there were a lot of resources available to people who had lost income as a result of the pandemic,” Hertz said. “That's less so the case now … now we're seeing a situation where even households that are gainfully employed are just being pressed … by inflation and just sort of the relentlessness of the current economic situation.”

Meeting the demand

A significant amount of resources that local food banks provided to the community during the early stages of the pandemic came from government sources. Donations through the CARES Act, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and trade mitigation purchases were temporary and have since expired, Sokul said.

“At the height of the pandemic, we (Gleaners) were getting 2.4 million pounds (of food) per month from the government,” Sokul said. “Unfortunately our outlook (now) is hundreds of thousands of pounds per month. Now that's a pretty significant drop. The challenge of course is … now need is continuing to increase. So there is a gap there.”

A volunteer opens a box of canned tuna to be distributed to meal packages at Gleaners Community Food Bank on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Taylor, Michigan.

In response, Gleaners has increased the amount of food it purchases every month. Half of the food distributed to the community in November was purchased, Sokul said. 

“We still are going to have to make very careful decisions on how we distribute food because it is going to be less this year, based on the outlook of government donated food than we had last year,” Sokul said.

Forgotten Harvest ― which rescues surplus food from grocery stores, restaurants and other places around Metro Detroit and delivers to 200 emergency food providers for free ― also does not have as much food as it did in the last couple of years but the majority of its operating expenses are funded by local corporate partners and individuals, Ivey said.

“Some of the government support that we've received has waned, some of our food donations have dropped off,” Ivey said. “It always is a struggle this time of year. … If the demand increases, then we'll have to continue to fundraise to be able to meet the increased demand.”

Forgotten Harvest doesn’t typically buy food but could if it was necessary to meet the need in communities the organization serves, Ivey said.

Lighthouse is not able to meet the full scope of community needs, Hertz said, so it has been targeting resources and focusing on the most vulnerable households. 

“There is a degree of unmet need in the community as a result of this,” Hertz said. “Our food assistance programs aren't only about hunger, they're also about sustaining the household’s overall economic stability.”

hmackay@detroitnews.com