Many Threatened with Empty Plates as Washtenaw County Battles Soaring Food Insecurity
By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Contributor
The holidays are fast approaching, bringing Hallmark Christmas card visions of turkey feasts, pumpkin pies, full bellies, and happy family gatherings. But for many residents here, food insecurity has become a daily worry. Many are not sure they’ll have a feast—or even enough food to feed their families—during the stretch between now and New Year’s.
“Food security is knowing that you can have a meal whenever you or your family members are hungry,” explains Markell Miller, director of the Food Gatherers’ community food programs, “Since 2020, food banks and low-income families have been fraught with uncertainty. They’re feeling increasingly stretched and stressed.”
Auto industry strikes, a potential government shutdown looming this month, rising food and gas prices, shrinking U.S. Department of Agriculture contributions to food banks, and the termination of the Covid-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have combined to form the perfect storm for Washtenaw's food pantries. The county has 19 high-capacity food pantries, but Food Gatherers’ reports partnering with more than 140 agencies and programs, including 83 total food pantries that are open to the public in Washtenaw County. Despite the numbers, the pantries are juggling record numbers of urgent requests for assistance, sometimes with desperate stop-gap measures.
“When does a crisis become the new norm?” Sayiza Nabilsi asks rhetorically.
The director of the Bryant Community Center food pantry (Washtenaw’s largest) answers her own question: “When it’s not even news anymore. That’s when we’re in trouble. And it looks like we are be facing some trouble.”
“Circumstances for many people are really scary this year. Our food pantry would love to give people so much more,” sighs Nabilsi. “Our shoppers tell us they need gas money, hygienic supplies, cleaning supplies, and diapers. We never know when Food Gatherers will give us those products. We want to help everyone, but it’s so hard.” Sometimes, she reaches into her own pockets to help a family. And when asked, she suggests donations of gift cards, so volunteers can give emergency help to needy shoppers.
“The need is growing, our budgets are shrinking, and food prices are rising,” Food Gatherers director Eileen Springer points out. “I admit that I feel panic-stricken at times.”
Nineteen food pantries are scattered throughout Washtenaw County, some as far West as Faith in Action, which serves Dexter and Chelsea; some as far North as Active Faith Community Services, which serves an 84-square-mile area just north of Ann Arbor; some as far East as the Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti; and others reach populations in the south, as far as the county border. Many are faith-based, some are sponsored by non-profits such as the Salvation Army, and several are community efforts.
“We’re not only seeing an increase in visits, but also new faces,” Springer says.
The acronym ALICE has been coined to describe the newcomers to the world of food pantries: the Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained Employed. “These are people who work full-time but in good months they exist on a bare-bones household budget,” says Sharon Sower, director of Active Faith Community Services.
“They have a lot of pride, and they held off as long as they could before asking for help. But they can’t put food on the table now without assistance,” says Helen Harms, who coordinates food distribution for Trinity Lutheran Church. “I prefer to call them shoppers—it seems more dignified.”
Active Faith has seen a steady influx of new people—“far above, sometime double, what we’re used to seeing—and that was before the UAW strike.” She sees more shoppers with disabilities (“30% of the pantry’s visitors), mental health problems, people who never got on their feet after Covid, and Hispanic families—“which means volunteers are dealing with language barriers as well as food distribution.”
During Trinity’s summer-long food pantry, Helen Harms faced a surge from 30 to 44 households requesting assistance. “We serve everyone who needs food, primarily older people, although ten of the 44 households this summer were young families with children.” Ten households are Chinese-speaking, five speak Arabic, and several families had recently immigrated from Africa. “Our volunteers all learned to use Google Translator this summer.”
As the church food pantry assimilated the newcomers, its members made a congregation-wide commitment to increase the community food budget as well as learn more about the expired and pending Farm Bill, hoping to influence Congress to address food insecurity.
Food Gatherers: ‘We’re not a grocery store’
Launched in 1988, Food Gatherers is the umbrella organization that collects and distributes protein, produce, and dry goods to all nineteen Washtenaw food banks—as well as paper, cleaning, and hygiene products when possible. The collective statistics are startling: 56,000 individuals visited local pantries in our county at least once in 2023—“that’s 52% of the Big House capacity,” Miller points out. “And we’ve had approximately a million service visits (counting everyone who visits a pantry). That is nine times the capacity of the Big House!”
Nation-wide, the need for food assistance rose 50% between February, the month when SNAP ended, and August. “It’s a challenge to operate a pantry, offering healthy foods with nutritional values as well as other essentials, trying to guess where and what the demand will be and how much we’ll receive each day in donations,” Food Gatherers director Eileen Springer admits. “We’re not a grocery store.”
“We believe that in a nation of plenty, no one should go hungry,” the website proclaims. Every day, its volunteers and employees collect food from local grocery stores and farms, as well as from private donors. “We used to visit restaurants, too, but that is too labor-intensive. We’d have to wait until ten o’clock or later and didn’t know what we’d be getting—if anything,” Springer explains. Volunteers and staff sort the food and determine the daily/biweekly/weekly distributions to the nineteen participating food banks.
In July of 2021, in the depths of the Covid pandemic, Washtenaw’s pantries collectively served 2,778 households. Two years later, the number surged to 5,374 last July. The difference is due, in part, to the pandemic federal food assistance and wage assistance programs.
When the government terminated SNAP in February, the vulnerable population turned to food pantries, whose visits soared. “These are low-income working individuals and families who were able to put food on the table before—but could do very little else,” Markell Miller explains. “Now they can’t do that.”
Food Gatherers is urging Congress to increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a critical resource for food banks as well as Michigan farmers. Michigan is the second-largest provider of food to the U.S. Department of Agriculture nationwide.
“We have definitely seen the need rise—by 60% since the beginning of the year—but we probably have a little less food in our packages than in the past, because Food Gatherers has less to share.” says Sarah Shugart, director of Faith in Action. “We are fortunate that the faith organizations in our section of Washtenaw County step up when we ask. Also, schools in Dexter and Chelsea hold nonperishable food drives.”
Not every pantry shopper is from a blue-collar background. “We have people who drive up in expensive cars, embarrassed that they need help now,” Nabilsi says. “Poverty has very different faces. But we treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
Food rescue is very labor-intensive. Aging food must be sorted quickly, by date, and then divided for individual pantries. “That happens every day and quickly,” Springer says. Then volunteers and staff members make deliveries throughout the county, following different schedules. Smaller pantries may be open only one or a few days a week or just during the summer, like Trinity Lutheran’s pantry.
When food donations are low, Food Gatherers buys groceries to fill the void. During this fiscal year, federal contributions to Food Gatherers dropped by 20%--which translates to 500,000 fewer pounds of protein and produce, a loss that must be made up by emergency shopping trips. “It’s a necessary emergency response, but it’s not sustainable,” Springer points out. “We need new and stronger policies in place, and we need increased community philanthropy to meet the rising need.”
To fill the increasing demands, Food Gatherers purchased 40% more pounds of protein and produce than a year ago. Springer anticipates that food costs might rise 40% in the coming year, at a time when the need also rises.
Bryant Community Center averages 450 shoppers each week, but anticipates a rise in numbers during the holidays, when families with small schoolchildren must feed them three times a day rather than just once during school days. In addition, the center will hold a Christmas party for children, sponsor Adopt-a-Family gift boxes, and right now they have begun assembling Thanksgiving boxes.
The enormous quantities Food Gatherers distributes won’t include turkeys. “We give all the foods for quality side dishes, but we cannot handle—or afford—turkeys,” Springer says. “Many businesses give their employees turkeys, and some food pantries have donations from civic organizations or church congregations.”
Her organization supports a network of more than 140 community partners (from faith-based groups to clinics, libraries, schools, universities, healthcare providers, and social service organizations), offering not only free and low-cost food, but also meals, deliveries, and volunteer training. And because hunger isn’t solved with food alone, Food Gatherers advocates for responsive government policies and system changes.
“The 2018 Farm Bill has expired, so this is the time when food banks can influence decisions,” Miller says. “I shudder to think about the potential impact if there is a budget shutdown in November.”
“We need help. We all need help.” Sayiza Nabilsi says.
Springer agrees, but points out, “The majority of our charitable donations arrive in November and December. Right now, we’re lagging behind where we usually are. But we’re hopeful that we can make up the shortfall. This is a very generous community.”
To contact Food Gatherers or find information about food pantries and programs near you, visit https://www.foodgatherers.org/foodresources/.
Photos by Doug Marrin