Detroit Partners Unite After Fire Destroys Harper Food Center

On a cold Saturday evening in February, Rev. Dr. Steve Bland, Jr. of Liberty Temple Baptist Church turned on the local news as he prepared for Sunday church services. When he looked up at the screen, he was devastated by the images he saw: Harper Food Center in Detroit had just burned to the ground. Residents of this already food-insecure area had just lost the only supermarket with healthy, affordable food in a two-mile radius.  

“When I saw the news clip about the fire burning, I really couldn’t sleep that night because of the questions on my mind,” said Dr. Bland. “What happens to the people in those areas, knowing that Harper Food Center was a major staple?”  

In Detroit, food insecurity was already a major concern in the community, and it only worsened throughout the pandemic. Feeding America projects that 23.8% of all Wayne County residents may be experiencing food insecurity—and for children in Wayne County, that number jumps to nearly 33%. With the loss of Harper Food Center, nearby residents were filled with stress and anxiety as they wondered how they would put food on the table. 

Dr. Bland was especially concerned about how mothers and their small children would be impacted by the fire. Mothers were often busy working two or three jobs, he said, and in normal circumstances they would send their children to the grocery store to get food. With the loss of Harper Food Center, and the lack of alternative options available, he worried about the health and safety of women and children who would have no other choice but to get their food from party stores and liquor stores.

Rev. Dr. Steve Bland, Jr., Senior Pastor of Liberty Temple Baptist Church, and President of The Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit & Vicinity

“Some of them don’t shop for weeks at a time, they go every two and three days – which means if a store burns on Saturday, they’re out of food by Monday,” said Dr. Bland. “The fact is, the food desert that already exists just multiplied as a result of that poverty issue.”  

Calling on the community for support:

With no time to lose, Dr. Bland immediately called upon his vast network of religious leaders and community organizations for help—and he was met with an outpouring of support. Groups of many different backgrounds unified around a shared mission to provide emergency resources for those impacted by the fire. In just three days, Dr. Bland formed the Harper Food Center Citizen Recovery Project, in partnership with Gleaners Community Food Bank, the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and VicinityJewish Community Relations Council/AJC (JCRC/AJC)Hearts for HumanityYad Ezra, and Hazon Detroit.  

By March 2, members of the Harper Food Center Citizen Recovery Project launched a series of emergency food and clothing distributions, taking place at three locations during all five weeks of March. Each site had enough resources to provide for 300 households. 

“Because there’s not just one partnership, but interconnected partnerships, it makes the work broader scale, it makes things happen quicker, and it has a greater impact in the community,” said Rachel Williams, Director of Strategic Community Impact Initiatives at Gleaners. “When you have a shared goal, and you have people who are committed, then you can problem-solve and work really quickly.” 

Michael Kuper, Advocacy Associate at JCRC/AJC (left) and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Executive Director at JCRC/AJC (right)

Michael Kuper, Advocacy Associate at JCRC/AJC, hands out resources at the emergency distribution sites each week. His organization has an existing partnership with the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, having worked together in the past to co-convene the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity. “Dr. Bland said that they were working on a food recovery project, so we stepped in to help support in any way that we could,” Kuper said. 

“We just want to work together to help people, and this is a great opportunity to work together,” added Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Executive Director at JCRC/AJC. “I think we always have to look out for each other; this is a community that lost their supermarket, and we have their back. And I hope that we all have each other’s backs and look out for each other.” 

Dr. Bland echoed Rabbi Lopatin’s sentiments. “The fact that we are different organizations but have common mission is what the community needs to understand and see. So I pray we can do further efforts like this in the future.” 

Making an impact with mobile food distributions

Gleaners’ role in the Harper Food Center Citizen Recovery Project is to provide wholesome, nutritious food to our neighbors in need, implementing our safe and efficient Mobile Food Distribution model. Before the distribution site opens, Gleaners staff members and volunteers unload two semi-trucks packed with shelf-stable food boxes, fresh produce, and refrigerated items. The food is organized and sorted on tables, and traffic cones are placed on the ground to create a touch-free “drive-through” style operation. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gleaners staff members have worn masks and practiced social distancing, while placing food directly in the trunks of guests’ vehicles. 

At the March 9 food distribution, a beautiful array of food was on display in the parking lot of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit. Crates of fresh corn, onions, potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, and pineapples lined the grass and sidewalks. Boxes of shelf-stable food items—known as Quarantine Boxes—provided each guest with rice and beans, peanut butter, tuna, canned fruits and vegetables, and pasta. Additionally, every household receives a dozen eggs (generously donated by Yad Ezra), a gallon of milk, large bags of cereal, and frozen chicken drumsticks.  

“I was here working on-site with the team last week – that was our launch week – and the community was very grateful,” said Williams. “They expressed gratitude; you could see their eyes widen when they saw all of the items that they would be getting. It takes the burden off of their shoulders and you could see them visibly react. I know they’re grateful. At the same time, we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.” 

Dr. Bland said that the Harper Food Center Citizen Recovery Project has given his community more than just food – it has given people hope. 

“Word is moving in the community and it’s creating hope, and people are responding. They’re sharing with each other that this is a critical place to get hope,” Dr. Bland said. “Partners like Gleaners and Hearts of Humanity, who have a mission that is similar to ours, to want to help people, the collaborative effort shows that we’re stronger together.”