Food Insecurity in Washtenaw County
by Lauren Grossman
For many Washtenaw County residents, the need for food assistance has risen dramatically as a result of the economic hardship and public health concerns brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food Gatherers, the largest anti-hunger organization serving Washtenaw County, has reported up to a 300 percent increase at the network of partner agencies. About 40% were first-time visitors who had never needed emergency food before.
“Before the pandemic, an estimated one in seven residents in Washtenaw County were food insecure, meaning they did not have access to reliable, nutritious food,” says Eileen Spring, president and CEO of Food Gatherers. “The pandemic is exacerbating food insecurity among those already in need, and is causing many others to seek help for the first time in their lives.”
For food banks nationwide, the pandemic created a perfect storm of food insecurity and operational challenges. “We have never seen anything like it; there was a drastic increase in people needing help and at the same time, the pandemic forced us to completely rethink every aspect of our service model,” says Spring.
Specifically, the challenge for Food Gatherers has been to continue operations and safely distribute much-needed food without its 7,000-plus volunteer corps, a decline in donated food and disruptions to the national food supply chain.
Closing out its fiscal year in June, the food bank marked the largest annual total pounds of food distributed in its 31-year history: 7.8 million. To accomplish this, they hired additional staff, increased its distribution schedule, forged new partnerships with local restaurants and the University of Michigan to increase donated food, and received additional support when the National Guard was deployed to the warehouse from April to July, and again in September. The spike in food pantry visitors seen in the spring has not decreased and the amount of food distributed each month continues to break records.
Since July, food banks nationwide have been advocating for Congress to include critical food resources for families in the next relief bill such as an increase in SNAP benefits (food stamps). “Now more than ever, food banks need your support,” says Spring. “The number of people facing hunger where we live is greater than ever, and it’s not going down. We expect there to be a real need for food for a very long time.”