How Community Organizations Are Changing to Meet the Needs of Food Insecure Detroiters

Story originally posted by Detroit Eater

In early April, local nonprofit Focus: Hope received a request for assistance from one of its Food for Seniors program recipients. Frank Kubik, Focus: Hope’s director of food programs, remembers the call distinctly: The person on the line was a 70-year-old woman who had COVID-19 and couldn’t leave her home to get groceries.

“She was also taking care of her parents, one of whom had the virus as well,” says Kubik. “They needed food, so I took it over, and when I got there, her mother, who was 89, was standing on her front porch.” As it turned out, the woman’s mother had tested positive for the disease as well, but was asymptomatic. “She told me that her daughter wasn’t feeling well, and went to lay down after she had called us. She was worried about her, but was praying that she would get better. Her husband was 92 years old and was virus-free, but needed assistance from her daughter to get around.”

That family’s experience isn’t unusual. Since the earliest stay-at-home orders in mid-March, efforts have sprung up across the country to ensure that fresh food is reaching struggling residents and families. In southeast Michigan, however, many people were already well acquainted with the everyday realities of hunger. Though food insecurity is making national headlines this fall as the implications of the COVID-19 crisis continues to compound, the fight to improve access to nutritious food and address the hunger gap is a familiar struggle for Detroiters.

In its 43rd year of operation, Gleaners Community Food Bank estimated that it’s reached “an additional 50,000 households each month” since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first stay-at-home order on Tuesday, March 24. “We knew we needed to increase our impact on the community,” says Stacy Averill, a representative for Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Organizers for Gleaners added dozens of mobile distribution sites and box distribution sites to meet the increased need for food resources in 2020. While the effort was successful, it still didn’t meet the needs of everyone in the local population who was being impacted by pandemic food insecurity. “We averaged 250 households at every one of our mobile distributions, but we knew there were others — seniors, homebound patients, pregnant mothers, and individuals with chronic health issues — who were also in need, but weren’t necessarily able to travel to the mass distribution at these mobile sites,” Averill says. “We started reaching out to current and new partners to help distribute boxes directly to those homes.”

Focus: Hope followed suit. Observing the risk to the 41,000 low-income seniors its Food for Seniors program serves each month, the nonprofit pivoted to contact-free options immediately. “We never shut down, [we] just shifted the business model,” Kubik says. “We got the word out to the community and began offering curbside pickup and home delivery.”

“It feels good to have a real meal that’s prepared special. It feels like a treat as opposed to a necessity.”

For Focus: Hope and Gleaners, these recalculations of their models were all about the ubiquitous word of the year, “pivot,” a euphemism for the operational adjustments necessary to resume business in the “new normal” of the pandemic. But something more profound also took place in the hearts of Kubik and his team at Focus: Hope: a deepened perspective. “You just don’t realize how difficult it has been until you see it firsthand,” Kubik says, recalling his conversation with the elderly, multigenerational family. “Here were three people in their home, two of whom had COVID-19. It left me wondering about what they were going to do and how tough it would be for them to get through this.”