Food Gatherers pivots to meet rising needs with fewer resources
Published in October, 2020
Washtenaw County is the fourth richest county in Michigan, and it may be surprising to some that before the pandemic, one in seven county residents was food insecure. The pandemic caused thousands to lose their jobs or have their hours cut, and that number has shot up. Food Gatherers is the food bank and food recovery program for the county, distributing emergency food directly through its summer student lunch program and community kitchen, and indirectly through over 170 community partners. These partners have seen anywhere from a 30% to 300% increase in requests for food since the pandemic began. Forty percent of visitors have never needed help before.
"Because of new unemployment, folks who had never gone to a food pantry were suddenly in need of assistance," says Eileen Spring, president of Food Gatherers. "If you think about the people who work in service industries, a lot of them don't have much savings. With Covid, it put them in a really tricky and dangerous situation in terms of meeting their daily needs and costs of rent."
Spring points out that isolation caused by the pandemic has created the conditions for food insecurity among some people who would otherwise not need assistance. "If you are a senior who can't exit your house, you are suddenly food insecure," she explains.
In a normal year, Food Gatherers highly trained staff and 7,500 volunteers distribute over six million pounds of food. This year, safety concerns caused Food Gatherers to scale back to a skeleton crew tasked with meeting the greatest demand in the organization's history. With restaurants closed and supermarkets facing supply shortages, figuring out where that food was going to come from was an even greater challenge. "Pretty much overnight we lost half of our food supply and most of our labor," says Spring. "Because of the incredible demand at stores most had no food in the first few weeks of the pandemic. It was a double whammy and
our whole model was turned upside down." The organization had to pivot to purchased food and were thankful for assistance from state and federal sources, in addition to corporate and private donors.
"We were fortunate that [governor Gretchen] Whitmer had her eyes on food insecurity," Spring says. "We were one of the first states to issue a pandemic EBT card" to distribute SNAP benefits," she says."It plays a huge role in getting more food out to folks." The governor also made funds available to purchase emergency food "to fill that gap in the first weeks as we were struggling to meet that rapid increase, and sent National Guard members to help out at Food Gatherers and other food banks.We're on the second deployment of the National Guard," Spring says. They sort and package food. They are well trained and get a lot done."
In recent years the organization and many of its partners have adopted the farmers market approach to food distribution, allowing patrons to choose what they wanted. But this system is labor intensive and giving away food is "such an intimate activity it's hard to socially distance at the same time," Spring says. . "Much of what the National Guard is doing is pre-boxing everything for our pantries to distribute. We'll do it as long as we need to but we hope for another day when volunteers can interact more and people can choose their own food instead." Some volunteers continue to work in Food Gatherers' community kitchen, and others "have gone on to help our partner pantries in our hunger relief network ...doing outdoor distributions where they can space out and do things more safely."
Spring believes that the need for emergency food will remain high for some time. She is concerned that the Michigan supreme court decision to overturn Governor Whitmer's emergency powers may make it impossible for the state to obtain crucial benefits. "When you have the declaration of state-wide emergency it allows certain waivers to go into place that makes certain state-wide safety net services like SNAP easier to access," she says--as well as "deploying the National Guard."
"It's not clear that our state can get these benefits without the state of emergency," she says. "It's a huge part of the safety net and it could lead to a significant spike in people seeking support from food pantries.
While Spring has concerns that would weigh heavily on even the most stalwart of citizens, she worries most about the health of the community. "If people want to be supportive," she says, "the biggest thing they can do is follow the guidelines and wear a mask. My biggest concern is that a staff person will get sick."
Spring has been working almost constantly since the pandemic began, and recognizes that she and her team will have to find a way to pace themselves. "I think Food Gatherers is designed to be an emergency responder. Generally emergencies don't last months or years. How do we maintain this level of intensity for the long haul?"
But as the sprint wears into a marathon, Spring has been buoyed by the selflessness and unwavering dedication of her team.
"We stayed open throughout the pandemic and our drivers and community kitchen staff have been on the front lines … Those folks have been doing amazing work and have shown a lot of courage and resilience."
[Originally published in October, 2020.]
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