By ZHOLDAS ORISBAYEV
Capital News Service
LANSING — As the holiday season approaches, the demand for food in Michigan is at a record high because of COVID-19, according to the state’s food banks.
“We have been distributing 85% more food than before COVID-19,” Summer Sunnock, the advancement director of the nonprofit South Michigan Food Bank based in Battle Creek.
Her agency started serving Michiganders in the 1980s. It partners with 285 food pantries and fresh food distribution centers in Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Hillsdale, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Lenawee and St. Joseph counties.
“There are a variety of reasons for people to come to food banks, but we have seen a huge surge because of the pandemic,” Sunnock said. “Besides that, kids are at home and some other family members are also working remotely, and that means they need more food than usual.”
One reason for the increased need is that COVID-19-related medical expenses are taking the last dollars out of Michiganders’ pockets, Sunnock said.
More people in Michigan lost jobs, too, with unemployment spiking up to 24% in April. It’s since dropped to 5.5% in October, but remains high compared with the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The South Michigan Food Bank distributed 9.2 million pounds of food last year, a 17% increase from 2018, Sunnock said. “This year, we are on the track of distributing 14 million pounds of food.”
That’s an increase by more than 50% for the entire service area. Food distribution is up 111% in Calhoun County, 85% in Branch County and 64% in Jackson County, according to South Michigan Food Bank officials.
It has also increased 25% in 40 counties in western Michigan, according to Feeding America West Michigan, a nonprofit and one of 200 food bank branches of Feeding America’s nationwide network.
“We partner with 25 to 30 large retailers to collect food donations, and farmers are also contributing more food as they see that food insecurity has risen,” Pattijean McCahill, Feeding America West Michigan’s development and marketing director.
The agency distributes food to 900 food pantries and other sites across the region. Most of them serve community members weekly.
The increased demand created a need for reinforcements.
“We had shortages in volunteers at the beginning of the pandemic and the National Guard of Michigan was appointed to help us,” McCahill said. “Now they are serving as our volunteer force.”
Others are responding with more money for food.
Donors contributing to Feeding America West Michigan reached 7,000 this year. Around $4 million has been received since the pandemic started, according to agency officials.
Christopher Ivey, a marketing and communications director at the nonprofit Forgotten Harvest in metro Detroit, said that his organization struggles for volunteers. It is one of Michigan’s largest food banks.
There is no way to hide that need for volunteers at Forgotten Harvest, Ivey said. “Because of the pandemic, we have to increase our mobile distribution sites and volunteers’ help is needed in more sites than usual.”
Forgotten Harvest had over 15,000 volunteers last year to clean, box, and distribute the food to Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb county residents, Ivey said.
“We need more volunteers as the number of people we serve increased by 50% this year,” he said. “We served 540,000 people last year, and we have already served over 700,000 since March.”
“Forgotten Harvest has a mission of feeding people and reducing food waste and we are very grateful to people who are supporting us,” he said. “With every dollar that is given to Forgotten Harvest, we are able to distribute $7 worth of food.”