Michigan food banks have less food – and more people to feed

Originally posted on MLive.com

Nicole Irons used to visit food pantries once a month.

But her food benefits ended in July right as grocery costs jumped. And now Irons, a 41-year-old part-time delivery driver who has three children, makes weekly trips to Hazel Park food pantries.

“I go and sit in these lines once a week because I count on these gallons of milk, and I need this bag of chicken,” she said.

Irons is not alone.

More people are turning to food pantries as grocery costs skyrocketed in the past year, and Michigan food banks, which distribute to local pantries, are straining to meet the growing need despite a drop in the food supply.

“It’s a perfect storm almost,” said Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

An estimated 1.1 million people face food insecurity in Michigan, according to Feeding America.

“I go and sit in these lines once a week because I count on these gallons of milk, and I need this bag of chicken,” she said.

But food pantries have seen numbers grow in recent months as grocery costs climbed 11.8% last year.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we thought we would be getting back to a more normal type of food need. But inflation really took over,” said Ken Estelle, president and CEO of Feeding America West Michigan.

Estelle estimates the food bank, which covers nearly half of Michigan’s 83 counties, served 20% more families last year than in 2021. And the Food Bank Council, a network of seven food banks, saw need across the state tick up during the fall and jump 20% in the past month.

“We took enough food to the (Upper Peninsula) a few weeks ago for 400 families and 600 showed up,” Knight said. “The next day we sent another semi across the bridge with enough food for 200 families.”

Nearly 801,000 Michigan households, up from 705,000 households a year prior, reported not having enough to eat in December, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. And an average of 8.5% of households reported food scarcity in 2021 compared to 10.9% last year.

“There are so many families that are living paycheck to paycheck anyway,” Estelle said. “And it doesn’t take a lot to put them over the edge.”

To make matters worse, the food banks don’t have enough food.

Donations usually come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which buys surplus food from American farmers, but Knight says these supplies have dwindled amid supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine.

“That’s been the role of the USDA forever. Then they take that food and give it to the charitable food networks like Feeding America,” he said. “None of that is happening, so we don’t have any food.”

As an example, Feeding America West Michigan’s mobile distribution gave out 10.8 million pounds of foods to 157,000 households in 2021. And last year, the food bank distributed 9.8 million pounds to 188,000 households.

“The number of households we’re serving has gone up, but we’re providing the household on average less food than the year prior,” Estelle said. “And that’s mainly driven by the fact that we’re having difficulty getting the food we need.”

To cope, food banks are spending more money.

About 40% of Feeding America’s 200 food banks are operating in a budget deficit to meet the demand, president and CEO Katie Fitzgerald told PBS NewsHour late last year. And Estelle says the West Michigan footprint is relying on donations to “buy a lot of food.”

All of this comes as additional food assistance is about to stop.

A COVID-era policy that boosted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, is ending in February. This gave an extra $95 a month to eligible Michigan families since 2020.

A few state and federal moves could bring relief to food banks.

One piece of legislation at play is the farm bill.

Lawmakers renegotiate the multi-billion dollar spending package, once every five years, and it’s set to expire in 2023. A safety net for American farmers, the bulk of farm bill funding goes toward SNAP. And some advocates, like the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are pushing for an expansion of the nutrition program.

Estelle says increases in programs like SNAP alleviate the burden on food banks.

“We basically fill the gap between what people need and what they can get through government food assistance programs,” he said.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $2 billion to buy food from farmers this year. Half will be used to purchase food for emergency providers like food banks. The rest goes toward school meals and a local food purchasing program.

But this will likely take months to have an impact.

“Food will begin to come as early as April, but January, February, March can be very ugly,” Knight said.

That’s why the Food Bank Council of Michigan is asking the state for an emergency $5 million to get through the winter months. Knight called it a “significant investment” that will have a “tremendous impact” on Michigan families.

“Five million dollars means the difference for families on whether they have enough access to the food they want and need over the winter,” he said. “Five million dollars in the state budget is like a rounding error.”

For now, the perfect storm is still brewing.

And Irons has noticed.

She typically shows up to a Gleaners Community Food Bank distribution 45 minutes before it opens. But Irons, whose family income barely surpasses the threshold for food benefits, plans to get there even earlier after seeing the line wrap around the building last week.

“I have no choice but to rely on the food pantries,” she said.