Originally Printed in Detroit Free Press – March 21, 2020
Henry Cook just saved up enough to move out of a homeless shelter.
After four months in the system, Cook, 53, moved into his new Mexicantown residence in recent weeks with his 20-year-old son with developmental disabilities, he said. Still, money is tight.
That’s why he’s thankful places like the Mercado Food Hub Pantry are getting creative and still serving the community amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pantry operators pivoted to turn the location into a drive-thru and walk-up pantry to cut down on concerns of spreading the virus.
“It filled me with some type of joy, because people are still trying to help,” Cook said.
Cook and his son walked with backpacks on Wednesday to fill up with groceries from the food pantry at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Southwest Detroit, 2826 Bagley St., he said. There he found staffers stationed outside to supply Southwest Detroiters with nourishment.
The pantry is one of a number connected with nonprofit Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan switching to drive-thru service to respect health official recommendations on social distancing, Gleaners spokeswoman Kristin Sokul said in a voice message Friday.
Though an exact number was not available, Sokul said the majority of Gleaners’ more than 500 partner agencies are making the move to a drive-through or walk-up food pantry model. Gleaners also plans to open up to 54 more locations through mobile food centers soon.
The client-choice pantry at the engagement center is meant to maintain the dignity of clients and allow them to shop for their own food, said Carmen Mattia, senior director of the center.
The Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic branch of the automaker, opened the center filled with nonprofit partners in 2013.
Right now, the pantry is the only service open at the site amid COVID-19 concerns, Mattia said.
To counter concerns with the spread of the virus, staff members now are loading up carts with choices determined by the pantry by family size and delivering them to clients lined up outside, Mattia said. Clients are responsible for loading the groceries into their cars, staff then sanitize the shopping carts, and the process repeats.
Brook Bianchini helps Jodie Frazier load food she picked up from the Gleaners food bank drive-thru in Detroit on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
The pantry serves about 500 families a month, Mattia said. Amid the pandemic, there are more people showing up without appointments asking to shop, she said.
“People are just coming up to us and asking, ‘Can we get some food. Is there any way that I can get in line with the rest of the people?’” she said.
When that happens, there are emergency food bundles prepared, said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Fund.
Cook has used this option twice in the last week, both times under the new drive-thru model, he said.
On Wednesday, he and his son, Somier, walked away with potatoes, canned peas, onions, apples, tomatoes, corn and cucumbers, Cook said
“We have good backpacks,” he said with a laugh.
Cook was going to visit the food pantry with or without extra COVID-19 precautions, but said he was glad to see it in place.
For others, such as Jodie Frazier, 54, the new set up meant less worry.
Her soon-to-be mother in law, who she calls “mom” and aids with pantry visits, is more vulnerable to illness due to dialysis, she said.
Frazier, a caretaker for her fiancé and several other people, said the quick roadside option meant less exposure to other people and surfaces in the pantry. Trips to the food pantry normally take about 40 minutes. The one Wednesday took about 15 minutes, she said.
“I’m glad that they thought of it because, like I said, you don’t know with this virus what it’s going to do, where it’s going,” she said.
Daissy Martinez, 20, said she’s been to the pantry under normal operations and didn’t mind not choosing food herself. She walked away with items including vegetables, milk, chocolate milk, cereal, rice, canned goods, chips and peanuts, she said.
She used to volunteer with Gleaners, she said. Now they’re a big aid at a time of uncertainty.
“It’s a great help, especially because work is going down; they’re still helping families,” she said, later adding that her husband installs sprinkler systems but has little work right now.
Magna Garcia picks up food from the Gleaners food bank drive-thru in Detroit on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Alexander, of the Ford Fund, said her group plans to aid with Gleaners’ mobile food banks. In the time of coronavirus, the public will likely see more creativity when it comes to services like food banks, she said.
“I think in this space we’ve had to be really innovative and find a way to get these critical services to people but also do it in a way that’s safe and recognizes the social distancing and other guidelines that are being issued,” she said.