Data released in June by Feeding America shows that in 2018, the United States experienced the lowest reported food insecurity levels since the Great Recession. Nearly 89% of American households had consistent access to nourishing food day in and day out. Today, the tides of hunger have dramatically shifted. With ongoing hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing a new reality ahead—one that places hunger at the forefront of concern.
Anticipating Future Need
Feeding America projects that the rate of food insecurity in southeast Michigan could rise by up to 5% overall—meaning more than 212,000 additional people might be at risk of hunger. This estimate considers new unemployment numbers combined with existing poverty and food insecurity rates. Without consistent access to nutritious food, our entire community will be impacted. When our neighbors face hunger, long-term outcomes are greatly affected—from lower graduation rates to decreased job retention to poor patient health.
Across geographies, Feeding America reported the following trends, which are mirrored in the projected data for Gleaners’ service area in southeast Michigan:
- Places that had relatively higher rates of food insecurity before COVID-19 will continue to have relatively higher rates of food insecurity. Before the pandemic, Wayne County had the highest food insecurity rate in our service area—at 17.3%, with 304,020 individuals struggling with hunger. Feeding America projects the rate could increase to 22.5% in total.
- Places that had relatively lower rates of food insecurity before COVID-19 will see the largest relative increases in food insecurity. Livingston County had the lowest food insecurity rate in our service areas. Feeding America projects the county’s childhood food insecurity could double—rising from 7% to 16%.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gleaners has reached an additional 50,000 households each month through emergency response efforts. As our team quickly expanded distributions to meet the immediate demand, Gleaners’ leadership continues to anticipate the future need through conversations and collaborations with our local and national partners.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone was rushing to get food—whether you had means or not. Gleaners was an immediate source of relief for people facing huge uncertainties,” said Rachelle Bonelli, Vice President of Programs at Gleaners. “As this crisis continues, we’re bracing for a second rush. With jobs not returning in particular industries and benefits set to run out—we could see even more people coming out as soon as August and continuing through the end of the year.”
The pandemic has brought both a public health crisis and an economic crisis—a downturn unlike any our nation has experienced. It affects everyone, yet specific groups will experience heightened and lasting hardships—from professional industries to low-income areas to marginalized groups.
“It looks as though this is the beginning. Everyone is anticipating an increase in need,” says Sarah Mills, Director of Wellness and Nutrition Education. “Gleaners is reaching populations that we have never worked with before—small business owners and people who have lost their jobs permanently. This impacts all of our work at Gleaners and is stretching us to be more efficient and to be ready in any moment.”
Gleaners is committed to remaining a reliable source of food for those most affected by the pandemic crisis:
Households with Children
According to Feeding America’s projections, childhood hunger could nearly double in four out of the five counties Gleaners serves. School closures create additional burdens for parents, including the need to account for meals provided during the school days.
“I’m a single mother with a nine-year-old at home. Before this—I always managed to make my budget work. But my hours have been cut and I am not sure when I will have a full paycheck again,” said Crystal Fischer of Detroit. “Childcare and summer camps are something I cannot afford. Now I rely on my community to help.”
Like many, Crystal is seeking food assistance for the first time in her life. She recently heard about Gleaners’ food distribution at Citadel of Praise in Detroit from her church’s email newsletter. At the distribution, Crystal received 36 pounds of groceries—including fresh produce and milk. “This is more than I imagined. I’m very grateful to bring this food back home.”
Serving households with children remains our top priority and we are working to meet the immediate needs while continuing to collaborate with our partners to better understand the affects childhood hunger has on academic achievement, health, behavior and stability.
To reach even more kids in need, our Summer Food Service Program launched in July and provides nourishing food to kids who are missing school meals. With 90 feeding sites operating July through August across southeast Michigan, Gleaners will reach thousands of children who are missing school meals.
Michigan is among the states reporting the highest levels of unemployment. In June, our state saw the highest rates—reaching 22.7% mid-month. While many are returning to work, the University of Michigan Department of Economics projects the unemployment rate in our state may not dip below 11% through the end of the year.
This level of job and income loss could have resounding and lasting impacts on households. Access to necessities like healthy food can become a daily struggle. Re-examining data from the Great Recession, food insecurity peaked in 2011—nearly five years after the economic downturn began. While each economic crisis comes with unique hardships, Gleaners is constantly scaling up solutions that meet the needs of our community during this unpredictable time. Gleaners is committed to operating drive-up food distribution sites that were launched in response to the pandemic. An average of 240 households are served at each site—operating five to six days a week.
In March, Joe Byrne of Clinton Township lost his job as a stagehand and has not received unemployment as of June. “All of a sudden—I’d found myself in a deep hole,” said Joe. With a 10-year-old at home, Joe had to find a way to make sure the family had enough to eat. Driving down the road, he saw a Gleaners’ food distribution and was elated. “It’s like I went to the grocery store. I have tomatoes for the first time in so long,” said Joe. “I really am so appreciative of what you all are doing. And it makes me feel appreciated too.”
Low-income Households & Marginalized Communities
With the threat of COVID-19 remaining ever-present, our region’s most vulnerable populations face new challenges when it comes to accessing healthy meals. For households living on a strict budget, food is often the cost that gets cut first.
- Most low-wage jobs cannot be performed at home, so those workers are either experiencing lost wages or continuing to work, presumably risking their own health.
- Seniors living on a fixed income are at a high risk of going hungry. In addition, seniors face greater health risks during the pandemic, which means even more barriers to accessing nutritious meals.
- Structural and institutional racism have positioned communities of color as particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout and health consequences of this pandemic. In 2018, food insecurity among Black American households was more than twice that of white, non-Hispanic households according to the USDA. People of color, and Black Americans in particular, continue to be disproportionately impacted as a result of structural disparities.
“We know there are people who are at higher risk. And there are also people who cannot drive or get transportation to our food distributions or food pantries.” said Bonelli. “Gleaners is connecting with more than 100 hundred community partners to make sure nourishing food gets to these populations—right where they live.”
In addition to providing drive-up food distribution sites in high-need areas, Gleaners provides emergency food boxes filled with well-balanced high-protein food to those who may not be served by our existing programs and partner agencies. Each week, these boxes are distributed to a variety of partner organizations, including healthcare providers, community organizations, and low-income residences. Together we are reaching patients, veterans, seniors, young mothers and many other vulnerable populations throughout the region.
Learn More About Hunger
Hunger is a complex and wide-reaching issue—yet something we can solve when we come together. Learn more about the fight against food insecurity in Michigan and around the nation.
Food First podcast, offers conversation around food security in Michigan from Gerry Brisson, President and CEO of Gleaners, and Dr. Phil Knight, of the Food Bank Council of Michigan
Feeding America’s national reports cover the organization’s research on the impact of coronavirus on food insecurity.
Donate today, and your gift will be matched.
Gleaners’ Hunger Free Summer Plus campaign is raising support for our expanded food distribution efforts. Every dollar given provides six meals for children, families, seniors and other vulnerable hungry neighbors.