Expanding our Capacity to Serve

Originally posted in the 2022 Harvest Edition

“Food help in Livingston County.” It was the first time Jacob had ever typed those words into a search engine, after 25 years of living in the area. He had an established career in automotive testing and never imagined he would need help putting food on the table. But the events that began in 2020 changed everything for him, his wife, and his children.

“There’s been a lot of medical expenses and things of that nature. And getting cut down to reduced pay a few times—that was hard,” Jacob said. “So, it’s just everyday expenses. Inflation. The furnace going out. Crazy stuff like that.”

Jacob felt anxious as he drove to his appointment at Gleaners’ distribution center in Howell. But as he followed the signs that read “Shared Harvest Pantry,” he was relieved when he encountered what looked like the familiar setting of a small grocery store. Walking down the aisles of Gleaners’ client-choice pantry, he began loading fresh produce, gallons of milk, and shelf-stable food items into his shopping cart.

“I was a little apprehensive at first, but they actually made it very comfortable,” Jacob said, adding that the pantry’s evening hours are convenient and accessible for working parents. “They always know our names and treat us with the utmost dignity and respect. We really appreciate it.”

Gleaners knew services that only operate during regular business hours would be inaccessible to anyone working a full-time job, especially when they have children at home. And in Livingston County, the sprawling rural landscape would pose transportation challenges for many. While Gleaners successfully addressed these initial barriers with Shared Harvest Pantry, what would happen if clients ran out of perishable food items before their next monthly appointment? Born of this need was a new Fresh Market Pantry program, a new food access opportunity that Shared Harvest Pantry began offering to their community. Without appointment, anyone in need can receive fresh produce and milk on a more frequent basis through the Fresh Market Pantry program, with convenient hours on evenings and weekends.

What began as a way to meet the needs of families in Livingston County evolved into a roadmap for growth across Gleaners’ five-county region. Gleaners, in partnership with Ford Motor Company Fund, took all the elements visitors loved about Shared Harvest Pantry and opened a second grocery style pantry—the Mercado Food Hub—in Southwest Detroit, serving a predominantly Spanish-speaking population. The Mercado Food Hub operates within the Ford Resource and Engagement Center, a one-stop shop for residents to utilize a dozen different nonprofit services, such as education resources, job placement services, legal assistance, and cultural activities. Here, Gleaners staff members are bilingual in Spanish and English and keep culturally responsive food items fully stocked on the shelves. The pantry was so well-received that in 2020, Gleaners incorporated the Fresh Market Pantry program at the Mercado Food Hub, paralleling the success of its Livingston County counterpart.

These two client-choice pantries, which now serve a combined 31,635 households per year, have become a model for expansion. Twelve of Gleaners’ partner agencies across Southeast Michigan now operate as client-choice pantries, with Fish and Loaves Food Pantry in Taylor incorporating the Fresh Market concept as well. This past year, Gleaners met with more than 20 stakeholder groups and local leaders in southern Macomb County to strengthen relationships and put new plans in place that will best accommodate their community’s unique needs. With a bright future ahead, Gleaners continues to put our guests first, incorporating feedback from households across all programs and distribution channels.

In Waterford, 15-year-old Gabe sits in the passenger seat next to his mother as they drive up to Gleaners’ mobile distribution at the Oakland County Farmers Market. “We use this as our main source of milk, so that’s really helpful for breakfast,” said Gabe. “It really does provide for us.”

Fluid milk is one of the most requested items at Gleaners. It’s an essential part of breakfast in the morning for children, who need good nutrition and full stomachs to perform their best in school. To meet this need, imagine all the logistics involved: refrigerated trucks, temperaturecontrolled storage space, and a truck fleet that is large and fast enough to deliver milk to those who need it most—all while it is still fresh.

Gleaners had already made great strides in distributing fluid milk, going from zero gallons in 2015 to 879,000 gallons in 2021. Building upon existing efforts, Gleaners dramatically increased the ability to store, deliver, and distribute milk—along with fresh produce, frozen food, and dry goods—with our new South Campus warehouse in Taylor.

Acting as a central hub, it’s clear why the new facility, spanning twice the size of our Detroit headquarters, would advance and optimize Gleaners’ operations. But what is even more important is what it represents: generational change. This past year, Gleaners gained the ability to expand services and reallocate resources as needed—no matter what is happening in the world. It’s an ever-evolving process, shaped by the input of our communities and fluctuating needs of our guests. Together with the support of our partners, Gleaners is ensuring capacity, flexibility, and efficiency work in tandem.