‘Never seen anything like this’: Food pantries see spike in need

About a week before Thanksgiving, 640 families drove down a parking lot at a Troy food pantry to pick up boxes of holiday staples — turkey, vegetables, rice, cake mix and milk.

The typical start time for the program run by the United Community Family Services is 9 a.m., but on that day, the first two cars were already lined up two hours before and more than 150 vehicles came by before the usual kick off time, said Kristin Olmedo, president and CEO of the nonprofit, which primarily serves refugees and immigrants in the tri-county area.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before and it’s been a challenge, to be honest, to be able to keep up with the numbers that we’re seeing come through our doors,” she said.

The number of families who participated in the food pantry’s Thanksgiving distribution this year accounts for a 58% increase in households compared with the same time last year, and a 162% spike compared with 2021.

The steep increase in need for assistance stems from the end of COVID-19 pandemic-era safety net programs, when additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ended and people lost Medicaid coverage as part of a nationwide redetermination of benefits, Olmedo said. Although the holiday season is typically a time of higher need, metro Detroit nonprofit leaders say rising food and grocery costs have also exacerbated the issue, hitting families’ wallets, forcing them to decide among paying for rent, transportation, food and health care and leading to more people in pantry lines and soup kitchens.

Food insecurity still high among metro Detroit families

In 2023, the United Community Family Services saw more than 5,400 families use its food pantry services — which usually take place twice a month — a 43% increase compared with last year. Need has more than doubled since 2020, when it saw 2,286 visits, at a time when food assistance increased as part of federal COVID-19 measures. Since additional pandemic-era SNAP benefits ended in March, the food pantry has seen a surge of families coming in each month. More than 550 families used the pantry in October, a 22% increase compared to 464 visits in April.

More than 700,000 families in Michigan were receiving at least $95 more each month through the expansion of SNAP, but that ended earlier this year following a shift in federal law. The additional food assistance provided much-needed relief as grocery costs surged and made room in budgets for families to pay for other essentials, like utilities and housing.

Olmedo said clients lost Medicaid through the redetermination process, altering their household budget so they have to pay for outside insurance or participate in an employer’s plan.

“We just never would have imagined that this is where we would be,” Olmedo said about the increase in families using the food pantry.

The food rescue organization Forgotten Harvest, which serves Macomb, Oakland Wayne counties, says its more than 200 partner agencies, including local churches and soup kitchens, saw 30% more clients on average between June and November, compared with the same time period last year.

“It tells us that people are suffering and some are suffering in silence,” said Adrian Lewis, CEO of the Oak Park-based nonprofit.

It’s a misperception, he said, that because the pandemic has ended, so, too, has hunger.

“There’s this idea that the pandemic is over but yet the suffering hasn’t stopped for many people who had never seen a relief … because that was just their way of life,” Lewis said.

The Detroit-based Capuchin Soup Kitchen has seen an upward trend in the number of families using its services since the beginning of the year.

The organization’s two meal programs — serving people experiencing homelessness, working families and single parent households with children — provided 48% more meals in October compared to January, and has mostly seen month-over-month increases since March.

Gary Wegner, executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, attributed the hike to increases in grocery prices and reduced benefits. Families are having to make choices with rent, food and transportation. Though there may not be as many resources to help with rent payments or to get a car, there are options for food like Capuchin Soup Kitchen, he said.

“When they have to make choices, we give them one less choice that they have to make,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 2,700 people used the Capuchin Services Center food pantry, a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, in October compared to January. The organization distributed 55% more food in the fall versus the beginning of the year.

The number of people using Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s meal program is inching back towards pre-pandemic levels, Wegner said.

“I’m glad we’re there to be able to serve people, but it saddens me that there’s an increased number of people who actually need our services,” he said. “It reflects the people who are on the margins — most vulnerable. … Everybody is paying more for groceries, but our guests don’t have the money to pay for the groceries so they come to us.”

John York from Forgotten Harvest brings in a pallet of bananas as Princess Hatch, 29, fills a cart to restock the shelves at Fish and Loaves, a food pantry in Taylor on Mar. 3, 2023. (Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

Nonprofits need donations, volunteers

All three nonprofits — the United Community Family Services’ food pantry, Forgotten Harvest and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen — primarily operate off of donations. The agencies anticipate the need for food assistance to keep going up or remain high through this year and into 2024, especially as food costs more and families contend with the end of pandemic benefits.

“It’s almost like the perfect storm right now,” Olmedo said.

Nonprofit leaders say they rely on donors and volunteers. Individual donors make up about 60% of Forgotten Harvest’s revenue. The organization expects to be able to meet the demand for increased food assistance, but Lewis said volunteers are key to keeping operations going.

“No matter how much food that’s donated, if it’s not going out with the help of our volunteers in a timely manner — right place, right time, right quantity — we won’t be able to achieve our goal or meet the demand,” he said.

For information about food assistance resources, call 2-1-1 or go to https://mi211.org/. Visit https://pantrynet.org/ to search for pantries.

To donate to organizations and learn about ways to volunteer, go to: https://www.ucfamilyservices.org/; https://www.forgottenharvest.org/, and https://cskdetroit.org/. 

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