Hunger, food insecurity spike as COVID cases continue to rise

South Michigan Food Bank in Battle Creek distributing 82 percent more food this fall than last fall due to COVID
Posted at 8:42 PM, Nov 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 20:47:16-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, the South Michigan Food Bank in Battle Creek was distributing food to an average of 80 families a week.

However, seven months later, in October, they served 500 families.

“And, the last couple of weeks we’ve been topping 600 families. So, [that's] dramatically larger,” said CEO Peter Vogel during a Zoom interview on Monday. “Unfortunately we had [vehicles] on our street, Wayne [Road], all the way down the street and around the corner and they were backing up onto Dickman Road.”

Vogel said they distribute food every Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. However, people have been lining up in their cars at 11 o’clock in the morning. This year they're distributing “82 percent more food than we did at the same time last year.”

“This is our 38th year in existence of this food bank. The record, in terms of most pounds we’ve ever distributed in one year, I think was in 2011 and it was just more than 11,500,000 pounds of food into our eight counties, which is pretty significant,” Vogel said. “We broke that record in October.”

In October, the food bank distributed a record 14,000,000 pounds of food. According to Feeding America, which works with food bank, over 1,300,000 people in Michigan are experiencing hunger of food insecurity.

“We’re hearing a lot of accounts of people who the food banks have never seen,” said Luke Shaefer, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. “People are showing up in pretty nice cars, where they were maybe doing really well. We were actually in a really strong economy before COVID hit.”

Other food banks, pantries and emergency food centers throughout the country are seeing spikes in their distributions as well, including Pennsylvania and Texas. In November, the North Texas Food Bank distributed 2,400,000 million meals, up 78 percent from last year.

“We sort of had an employment shock to the economy like we never had before,” said Shaefer, who also runs the Poverty Solutions initiative at the university. “I think one of the under-appreciated stories was what the federal government did in the CARES Act in expanding unemployment insurance and both making it more accessible to people and increasing the amount of benefits for a period of time through the summer.”

Shaefer said it helped families pay bills and remain afloat during the summer. However, the funds are expected to end on December 31. So he hopes the federal government comes up with a plan now or immediately after as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take office.

“The things that we did in the CARES Act in May, they really worked to a greater degree than I think a lot of people have appreciated,” Shaefer said. “So we can build on that and do more. I’d like us to do more for families with kids. So, families with kids are like triple, quadruple buying, with a lot of them being out of work.”

In the meantime, the South Michigan Food Bank is in need of more volunteers. CEO Vogel said their current group of volunteers are hard workers but are experiencing burnout. So they’re asking for more volunteers, and also donations. They’ve been able to meet the demand so far because of state and federal programs providing them with food. However, those programs are about to end in a few weeks and the food bank wants to make sure they don't ever fall short of meeting demand.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to prevent that but [donations] would be really helpful too,” Vogel said. “People can do food drives for us or understand that any financial resources you give us now are going strictly to food purchases to be able to meet the demand.”

***To learn more about how you can help the South Michigan Food Bank, click here.****