Originally posted on mlive.com
Lee and Karen Swift grow zucchini, summer squash, green beans, green peppers and winter squash on their 120-acre farm in southwest Michigan. But most of those fresh vegetables end up feeding hungry families through food banks.
“It’s gotten bigger every year,” Lee Swift said. “We started out very small in 2014 with about 5,000 pounds and we’re up to almost 300,000 pounds now.”
The Swifts sell the bulk of their produce to the South Michigan Food Bank through a statewide program that buys excess food from local farmers to stock pantries. But this lifeline is wearing thin now that food banks are facing a perfect storm of high need and low food supplies.
Established in the 1980s, the Michigan Agriculture Surplus System typically rescues the “seconds” or “uglies” that aren’t sold to retailers like Meijer, Kroger or Walmart. Last year, the program distributed 13.6 million pounds of Michigan produce to food banks across the state and country.
But almost all the $2 million earmarked in the state budget for the program is gone.
“We’re not even hardly to the planting season yet and we’ve already spent it,” said Food Bank Council of Michigan executive director Phil Knight.
In recent months, high inflation and the end of pandemic aid drove more people to rely on food banks.
Grocery costs jumped more than 10% in a year with nearly 804,000 Michigan adults reporting not having enough to eat at the beginning of March, U.S. Census data shows. That’s up roughly 75,000 people from last year’s average.
At the same time, emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ended for 1.3 million Michigan households on March 1. After three years of extra grocery money, benefits dropped an average of $95 with some seeing steeper cuts going from $250 to $23 a month.says families then look for other ways to fill their pantries.
“What happens is the charitable food network, food banks in particular, becomes the safety net to the government’s safety net,” he said.
On the other end, food banks are scrambling to get food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture helps stock food banks by purchasing surplus crops from American farmers. Several federal bills boosted funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program in the face of high need during the pandemic. Through this program, Michigan received food valued at $23 million in 2020, $44 million in 2021 and an estimated $27 million last year.
Knight says these donations have trickled in recent months because of supply chain challenges and steep food costs.
The Food Bank Council of Michigan, a network of seven food banks across the state, got 6.9 million pounds of food from the USDA in the first quarter of 2022 compared to 1.5 million pounds in the first quarter this year, according to Knight.
Similarly, Gleaners Community Food Bank in southeastern Michigan says it was getting 2.4 million pounds a month of USDA food during the height of the pandemic. That dropped to 260,000 pounds a month in early 2023. Gleaners also saw need climb 40% in the past year.
“In January and February of this year, we hit a historic shortfall in government donated food,” said Kristin Sokul, Gleaners senior director of advancement communications.
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
To mitigate these issues, the Food Bank Council of Michigan wants more cash to buy crops from local farmers.
The council is pushing for $20 million to fund the Michigan Agriculture Surplus System in next year’s budget – a jump from the current $2 million allocated in the proposed 2024 state budget. In the meantime, Knight says another $5 million in a supplemental budget bill could tide them over, but no legislation has been introduced yet.
“This money would invest with farmers, producers and processors. And that puts money into the Michigan economy,” Knight said.
The Food Bank Council of Michigan uses state dollars to buy excess food at an average cost of 16 cents a pound. Forty-two million pounds of Michigan-grown food has been purchased over the past five years.
“I think it’s a win, win, win,” Knight said. “It’s win for the food banks, it’s a win for farmers and producers, but most importantly, it’s win for families.”
For the Swifts, the program is also a livelihood.
The couple, who started growing pumpkins in 1995, have turned their farm into a fall destination with a corn maze and donut machine. But about 46 acres of Swift Pumpkins and Produce are dedicated to growing vegetables for local food pantries.
“We make sure that our produce is high quality. We don’t ship even the ugly vegetables. We try to avoid that because we want to make sure that our children here in Michigan are fed and they’re fed with good produce,” Karen Swift said.
In addition to the Food Bank Council’s request, federal dollars are being stretched to help feed hungry families.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program received $550 million this year – up $46 million to cover rising food costs. Plus, nearly $1 billion will support USDA’s extra food purchases with the first deliveries arriving in mid-February and early March.
Michigan food banks are also spending more.
Gleaners has spent $4.1 million on food in the past five months compared to $2.7 million over the same period last year, according to Sokul. The food bank supplies a network of 400 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters through southeast Michigan.
With numbers flying around, Sokul said it’s important to step back from “quantifying need” through pounds of food or dollars spent.
“We hear the challenges from our guests every day,” she said. “It’s parents who are skipping dinner so that their kids can have more. It’s kids who are more worried than enthusiastic. It’s seniors who have to choose between important medications and whether or not they’re going to have lunch. Its neighbors carpooling to make the most of every, last resource that they have at their disposal.”