By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — For Michiganders struggling with food insecurity, mobile food pantries are just one way to increase access to healthy foods, as a network of agencies works to bolster education and expand food services in hard-to-reach regions.
Mobile pantries are a logical step in the fight against hunger in rural Michigan, said Lauren Spangler, the grants and communication manager for Feeding America West Michigan, a nonprofit food bank based in Comstock Park.
Fixed-location pantries account for about 60 percent of the organization’s annual distribution. But mobile pantries increase access by bringing food to the people who need it, rather than the other way around, Spangler said.
“Certainly fixed pantries are useful,” she said. “But if a fixed pantry is in an area where there are people in need — which is frequently the case in rural areas where folks are struggling with issues like a lack of transportation — mobile pantries fill that gap for one-day distribution.”
For the mobile pantry program, the organization fills semi trailers with 5,000 to 20,000 pounds of food, then connects with a rotating cast of partner agencies that receive and unload the trucks. Local residents can then visit the host agency to browse for food.
Food insecurity rates, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of a lack of access to enough food for an “active, healthy life” for all members in a household, are more severe in West Michigan’s rural regions, according to Feeding America data from 2016.
Counties that host the region’s urban centers tend to fare better. Ottawa County has a region-low 8.7 percent of households reported as food-insecure. Kent and Grand Traverse counties have low-to-middling rates of 10.7 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively.
But in rural Lake County — just 50 minutes north of Kent County — the rate skyrockets to 17.5 percent, the highest in Feeding America West Michigan’s service area.
Those numbers don’t reflect the true extent of the crisis, said Taylor Moore, the manager of Goodwill Northern Michigan’s Food Rescue program serving Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse and Antrim counties.
More accurate estimates consider those who would need to borrow money or receive assistance from places like pantries if they missed a paycheck, due to a lack of savings or other assets. Using these guidelines, he estimates up to one in three residents in Food Rescue counties need assistance.
Unlike federal and state food assistance programs, anyone is eligible for Feeding America’s pantries. The lack of an eligibility requirement is important because people who require their services may have a hard time proving financial need through conventional measures, Moore said.
“Talk to the people at the pantries — they aren’t just serving the folks in poverty,” Moore said. “They’re serving the Coast Guard folks that were furloughed. They’re serving the family that lost their job and is still figuring stuff out. It’s much more than just people in poverty.”
Addressing food insecurity is a multi-layered issue, Moore said. Food Rescue has carved out a unique role, collecting soon-to-expire foods from grocers and delivering them to pantries on the same day at no cost.
Organizations like Food Rescue, the food banks that store the items and the pantries that make them available form a well-oiled machine working to address hunger. Feeding America West Michigan has developed a network allowing its mobile and fixed partner locations to address 44 percent of its service area’s food shortage, by its own 2016 estimates.
Food Rescue’s efforts are included in that statistic, but Moore thinks it could be inaccurate too.
“A lot of food banks — and we used this metric in the past — say one pound of food is equivalent to a meal. That’s really difficult to prove,” Moore said.
The areas with the most need tend to be the ones with the least capacity to meet it. Of the 12 counties with the fewest agencies partnering with Feeding America West Michigan — mostly in the U.P. — 10 are above the organization’s regional average for food insecurity of 12.2 percent.
The mobile pantries, which vary in frequency but typically make monthly stops, according to Spangler, are also scarce across wide swaths of the U.P. Only four mobile pantries are scheduled to visit the U.P. over the next month, with none traveling further west than Ishpeming, near Marquette.
People travel up to 150 miles to attend the JKL Bahweting School’s mobile pantries in Sault Ste. Marie, from more western reaches of the U.P. to Mackinac Island to the Lower Peninsula, said Kristen Corbiere, a social worker and parent at the school. The pantry serves such a wide swath of the region thanks to dedicated volunteers and donors, she said.
During January’s polar vortex, “when the governor issued the state of emergency, it was just another day for us in the U.P.,” Corbiere said. “All our volunteers came in below-freezing weather, carrying boxes to people’s cars. It didn’t impact numbers at all — elders, children still showed up when everything was shut down.”
The goal of a monthly, year-round pantry is out of reach for now due to inconsistent fundraising for the $1,500 required to bring in 15,000 pounds of food on a truck. But in the meantime, Corbiere said Feeding America is “really good” about securing outside funding, and local groups and residents fundraise for the trucks.
That’s helped the school hold 15 pantries since its first in 2017, with two more on the schedule for April and May. In 2018 alone, the school’s mobile pantry served the equivalent of 94,600 meals, saving the community an estimated $246,438 in food expenses, according to Corbiere.
The fight against hunger doesn’t end with increasing access to food, Moore said. Through Food Rescue, he and others are working to not only increase the amount of healthy food available at food pantries, but to educate people on techniques like roasting and blanching that can maximize the nutrition they get from it.
“Hunger is a massive issue, and economic insecurity is massive,” Moore said. “In terms of meeting that need, we have got a long, long way to go.”