More Michiganders go without food as pandemic fallout persists

Originally posted on Oakland Press

Connie Miller said she will keep working to feed people as long as there’s a need, and in recent years, that need has grown.

Miller, founder of the Free Meals Program in Oxford, has been serving her neighbors with a volunteer heart for years, understanding the need for food assistance in her community and how some are embarrassed to admit they’ve been struggling to put food on their family’s table every day.

Every Wednesday, Miller and her group of 20-25 volunteers provide a free meal to hundreds of people from across northern Oakland County that walk through the doors of Immanuel Congregational United Church of Christ, no questions asked and no names taken.

Groceries are also offered to those in need, and most everyone that shows up needs food to take home, says Miller, who says the need for food is great, especially as the pandemic persists and inflation causes food prices to skyrocket to levels not seen in 40 years.

Food insecurity is a problem in northern Oakland County and it’s a problem across the state, in rural and urban communities, exacerbated by the pandemic and, now, record inflation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many Michiganders into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, including at the doors of food pantries and filling out applications for federal food assistance. Nearly 150,000 more Michiganders are receiving food assistance now than before the pandemic.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 1.32 million people in 705,000 households received $320.4 million in food assistance payments during the month of February. Compared to February 2020, those are increases of 12.4%, 12.1%, and 132.9% respectively.

As of March, about 8% of Michigan adults, age 18 and older, and 54% of children reported living in households where there was sometimes or often not enough to eat in the prior seven days, according to the U.S. Census.

Paul Alexander, a volunteer with the Oxford Free Meals Program, stocking grocery shelves at Immanuel Congregational United Church of Christ in Oxford, Mich. (C.J. Carnacchio)

Miller said a lot of people who show up to the church each Wednesday have never needed help before, including two new families this past week when 140 people were served a hot meal and given groceries. She said many show up embarrassed asking for help, but added that the only questions they ask of people is, “How are you, and how many people are you feeding?”

“They’ve been making deposits for years,” Miller said. “It’s okay to make some withdrawals now. They can call me at any time. I live right around the corner from the church. If Wednesday doesn’t work for them, I’ll go up and meet them and give them whatever they need.

Miller said the pandemic caught everyone off guard and many who are now in need of what the program has to offer were once the same people volunteering and donating food.

“Food is such a basic thing,” he said. “We do everything we can to make sure that that basic necessity is met.”

SNAP benefits

Since the pandemic began, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been providing increases in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, by at least $95 per month in Michigan, to help families supplement their budgets who are struggling to put nutritional food on their tables.

Earlier this week, for the ninth time since the start of the pandemic, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra extended the COVID-19 public health emergency determination for an additional 90 days, effective April 16.

As a result of this extension, these additional emergency SNAP benefits can continue to be distributed monthly to states that request them.

Federal spending on USDA’s food and nutrition assistance programs totaled $122.1 billion in fiscal year 2020, or 32% more than the previous fiscal year. This amount surpassed the previous inflation-adjusted historical high of $119.8 billion, set in fiscal year 2013. Combined spending on the SNAP and related Nutrition Assistance Programs (NAP) increased by 28 percent from FY 2019 to FY 2020.

Yes, the goal of these federal programs is to help families move towards self-sufficiency, but so often these food assistance benefits are just not enough to meet the need.

Research from The Urban Institute, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shows the average SNAP benefit of $2.27 per meal falls short of the $2.41 average cost of a meal with nearly 90% of people receiving food assistance report running out of food each month, according to the USDA.

Anna Almanza, policy director of the Food Council of Michigan, said while SNAP is a critical resource for many households with low incomes, there are still a number of individuals experiencing food insecurity that fall off the “benefits cliff.”

“This means that they do not qualify for SNAP benefits, but are still in need of resources to make ends meet,” she said. “Food banks provide groceries to those individuals that do not qualify for other forms of assistance, while also helping to fill in the gap for those that SNAP benefits fall short.”

Last year, the Biden Administration approved a 25% permanent SNAP benefit, the largest increase in the program’s 45-year history to reflect current cost realities. The average SNAP benefit – excluding other pandemic aid – has increased $36.24 per person each month or $1.19 per day

With this increase, Michigan will receive an additional $539 million a year in SNAP benefits, from $1.97 billion to $2.51 billion.

Food banks and pantries playing critical role

When SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month and people don’t have the ability to buy their own food, they turn to food pantries to fill that nutritional food gap. Food banks and pantries also provide food to those who don’t qualify for food assistance, serving an even greater population.

Feeding America recently announced that at least 60 million Americans turned to food banks, food pantries, and other private food assistance programs in 2020 in the midst of the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the charitable food sector, the Feeding America network of 200 food banks distributed more than six billion meals in 2020, an increase of 44% from the prior year. At the height of the pandemic in spring 2020, Michigan’s food bank network increased by 47% to be able to serve more people in need than ever before in food banking history. In 2020, it was estimated that the food insecurity rate in Michigan peaked at 19.1% with nearly 2 million residents experiencing food insecurity.

Gleaners Food Bank increased the amount of food provided from 46 million pounds in 2019 to more than 70 million pounds in 2021, including the addition of 60 mobile drive-through food pantries to help further reach those who need food the most. (Gleaners Food Bank)

According to BMC Public Health, there are 734 food pantries in Michigan spread across 69 of the state’s 83 counties. Most, 435, are located in urban communities while another 128 are based in rural areas.

Kirk Mayes, CEO of Forgotten Harvest, said the food pantry distributed 55 million pounds of food in 2021. Last week, the organization served 7,000 households in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties.

“When we think about filling a gap from a nutritional point of view, I guess the most basic way of looking at it is to consider what the nutritional plate looks like, either the USDA nutritional plate or the old school nutritional pyramid,” he said. “You then ask yourself, do people have enough of the different categories to put together a nutritional meal.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Mayes said Forgotten Harvest has done its best to source a variety of foods that would make sure nutritional food groups were represented like proteins, vegetables, and fruits.

With inflation driving prices up, it’s been more difficult to keep costs down operationally.

“The way that we get the food out into the community is through our fleet of trucks,” he said. “It’s harder to get our trucks fixed and it’s harder to get parts to get our trucks fixed. We do our best to stay ahead of the game to potentially offset some of the supply chain challenges with putting in advanced orders and trying to get things before we need them.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, metro Detroit food prices have increased 8.3% over the past year with prices for groceries increasing 11.4%. On a national scale, March food prices jumped 8.8% from a year ago, including a 13.7% increase for meats, poultry, fish and eggs, and 8.5% for fruits and vegetables.

In the Midwest, those increases were more pronounced at 10.3%, 15.3% , and 11.3% respectively.

Gleaners Food Bank has increased the amount of food provided from 46 million pounds in 2019 to more than 70 million pounds in 2021, including the addition of 60 mobile drive-through food pantries to help further reach those who need food the most. (Gleaners Food Bank)

Stacy Averill, vice president of community giving at Gleaners Community Food Bank, said the organization has been able to keep up with the increasing demand, as it did during the pandemic but the rising cost of food is also weighing heavily on the food bank

“Inflation is definitely having an effect in terms of our costs,” she said. “Fruit, produce, meat, milk, we’re seeing increases on all of it.”

She has not seen these spikes since she started working for the Detroit-based organization nearly nine years ago.

Almanza said the state’s food banks will need additional resources when these additional SNAP benefits expire while households struggle to keep up with increased costs for food.

“As the need for food resources and support increased during the pandemic, so have food prices and supply chain issues,” she said. “The impact of inflation and supply chain issues is not only affecting the clients and communities that the food banks serve, but also the food banks themselves.”

Gleaners Food Bank has increased the amount of food provided from 46 million pounds in 2019 to more than 70 million pounds in 2021, including the addition of 60 mobile drive-through food pantries to help further reach those who need food the most. (Gleaners Food Bank)

She added that dollars used to purchase food are simply not going nearly as far as they have in years past with the state’s food bank network feeling the pressure of this economic impact.

“This means less food available to distribute to communities and households in need. Food provided by the USDA programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program is a critical resource for food banks and our food received from USDA is down significantly right now.”

The numbers

During the month of February, 88,525 Oakland County residents in 51,612 households received food assistance totaling $21.8 million. Of those beneficiaries, 56,439 were adults and 32,086 were children.

These all represent increases over the February 2020 numbers, which totaled 73,456 residents, 42,724 households, and $8.6 million in costs.

In mid-Michigan, the number of residents receiving food assistance included:

  • Clare County: 3,437 households, 6,352 residents, $1,537,498 in food assistance payments
  • Gratiot County: 2,528 households, 4,925 residents, $1,170,994 in food assistance payments
  • Isabella County: 4,116 households, 7,516 residents, $1,826,253 in food assistance payments
  • Most of these numbers are increases over February 2020

In Wayne County, 409,557 residents in 215,813 households received $100.3 million in food assistance payments. Of those beneficiaries, 234,945 were adults and 174,612 were children. These numbers are also all increases over February 2020 including 382,092 residents, 200,884 households, and $47.7 million.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 543,000 Michigan adults age 18 and older reported in March sometimes or often not having enough food to eat.

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Among Michigan adults living in households with children, around 264,000 reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. Among that group, around 196,000 were women, around 100,000 were Black, and around 58,000 reported using SNAP benefits in the last seven days to meet food needs.

Around 60% of all Michigan adults ages 18 and older reporting that they don’t have enough food to eat are women.

Long-term solutions

Lewis Roubal, MDHHS chief deputy director for opportunity, said the state works closely with food banks and other advocates for people who are food insecure and refers SNAP recipients to them for further assistance.

“The number of people receiving food assistance remains higher than prior to the pandemic,” he said. “We are monitoring any decreases in available income for clients to buy food as well as any increases in applications for food assistance.”

Roubal said increasing food costs coupled with the end of the eventual federal government’s additional emergency SNAP benefits will create challenges for Michigan families struggling to put food on the table, adding MDHHS will remain committed to helping provide families easy access to food assistance and other benefits.

MediaNews Group file photo

Gleaners Food Bank representatives set up a mobile pantry at Pontiac High School in 2021. (MediaNews Group file photo)

When it comes to long-term, sustainable solutions to fighting hunger, he added that MDHHS has participated in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Food Security Advisory Council, which made a number of recommendations last month to help people including:

  • Increasing funding for fresh food through local and regional programs.
  • Increasing feedback from Michigan residents who use community food programs.
  • Improving access to food that meets the medical needs of certain Medicaid beneficiaries, such as Michiganders with diabetes. The report recommends Michigan pursue a federal waiver that would allow Michigan to develop a pilot program that addresses the social determinants of health for Medicaid beneficiaries. The program would include evidence-based interventions that improve access to medically supported food and nutrition services, such as medically tailored meals that are home-delivered to the homes of patients with diabetes. Improving infrastructure for food insecurity screening and referral in health care organizations.

“Members of the Food Security Council are passionate about this complex challenge because most of us see its effects on a daily basis,” said Dr. Phil Knight, chair of the Food Security Council. “Families and individuals faced with food insecurity deal with toxic stress that impacts all parts of their lives – including their health and their ability to maintain employment and support their children. We appreciate Governor Whitmer’s leadership in tackling the issue of food insecurity.”

While final statistics for 2020 are yet to be reported, estimates show that during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity increased to approximately 1.9 million people in Michigan, including 552,000 children.

Cost-effective policies that enhance federal and state food and nutrition programs, increase charitable food assistance and clinically integrate food-as-medicine programs in health care have the potential to decrease food insecurity, the council said in its report.

The Food Security Council final report can be found at:

Need help?

Michiganders can find food assistance resources by visiting:,5885,7-339-71547_5527—,00.html.

A map of Michigan food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and mobile food drives can be found at