Last spring, COVID exploded on the world consciousness, shifting the lives of people across the globe. While for some of us that meant trying to navigate through a picked-over grocery store, for others it meant not knowing where they would get their next meal.
Fortunately, there are people who dedicate their waking hours to solving food insecurity in the best of times and they didn’t slack off when the pandemic made the world fall apart.
Gleaners Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan and Forgotten Harvest were among the organizations that made sure as many people as possible received healthy food during the pandemic.
While food insecurity is an ongoing problem, it was magnified during the pandemic as people lost their jobs with the shutdown. As a result, many had to ask for food help for the first time. To further complicate the situation, the food supply chain was disrupted when COVID-19 hit food processing plants and other food distribution areas.
Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners had been preparing for just such a possibility.
Months before COVID-19 reached American shores, Forgotten Harvest CEO Kirk Mayes was running through worst-case scenarios.
What would happen if they ran out of food?
Would there be a drop in the volunteers they depend on?
Was there a chance people could get violent?
“Mentally, it took us a few weeks to our heads wrapped it and get used to the new format,” says Mayes.
Forgotten Harvest’s crisis planning made sure it had contingency plans for even the worst of scenarios.
Gleaners called on the many lessons it learned back in the 2008 financial crisis about how to deal with a sudden increase of food insecurity, according to Stacy Averill, vice president of community giving and public relations.
“We saw an immediate increase across all our service areas,” she says. “We were seeing 150 households in need.”
With so much about the pandemic was unknown, one thing Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners knew for sure – working together was crucial.
Mayes and Gerry Brisson, Gleaners Community Food Bank President & CEO, went to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office to discuss solutions on how to make sure food could accommodate the growing demand. The City of Detroit worked with Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest to provide alternative sites where families can get groceries. At the same time, the two non-profits continued to provide groceries through their existing partners across the region.
“To take care of our community members and address rapidly increasing food insecurity and hunger, it was essential to work together to meet the needs of our hungry neighbors where they are,” says Brisson. “Working collaboratively with the City of Detroit and Forgotten Harvest directly at the onset only made sense to help achieve our collective goals.”
That need was very real.
According to Feeding America, a non-profit network of more than 200 food banks, made a projection in October 2020 of food insecurity in the areas Gleaners serves.
- Wayne: 23.8 percent (17.3 percent in 2018)
- Oakland: 15.1 percent in 2020 (10.1 percent in 2018)
- Livingston: 13.1 percent in 2020 (8.1 percent in 2018)
- Monroe: 16.7 percent in 2020 (11.2 percent in 2018)
- Macomb: 18.1 percent in 2020 (11.9 percent in 2018)
That represents an increase from 566,270 people in 2018 (the last year of measurement) to 813,680 in 2020.
From March 2020 to March 2021, Gleaners distributed 85.4 million pounds of food. Broken down, pre-pandemic, in 2018 Gleaners averaged 3.5-4 million pounds of food a month, since March 2020 it averaged 6.5 million pounds a month.
The biggest concern both nonprofits had was making sure there was never a time when people could not get food.
Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest began rolling distribution, where people pop their trunk and the food is placed in for them, creating a no contact experience.
Gleaners also provided boxes, which contained everything a household would need for a week in a single box and delivered to doorsteps.
However, many people lacked didn’t have a car, were elderly, pregnant mothers, homebound patients, or those with chronic health problems.
To help those people Gleaners set up pickups for helpers and delivered to some locations with the help of local partners.
Both organizations had their eyes on the same prize – to not turn away a single person in need or knowingly let someone go hungry, even once.
“There was not a day we couldn’t get food out,” says Mayes.
Another challenge was the breakdown in reliable food sources for kids who depended on the school meal program for healthy food. With in-person learning that was impossible. According to Averill, there were 300,000 kids in the service area that depended on the schools for those meals.
Gleaners went to local school parking lots and distributed food to families. In some of the larger mobile distribution centers food was distributed to local areas.
“We are planning to continue the distributions as long as possible,” says Averill.
However, one issue both Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest face is fewer volunteers to help distribute the food since many are concerned about the spread of COVID-19.
Forgotten Harvest relies on volunteers to sort food and help pack emergency food boxes. Unlike most food distribution organizations, it also has a farm that provides fresh food. While there was a drop in volunteers, the farm was still able to provide a smaller variety of fresh produce.
“The farm is still up and still working,” says Mayes.
This is especially important to Forgotten Harvest because it is a source of pride to get fresh, local produce to communities and know it will keep coming.
In all cases, Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners implemented mask wearing, proper social distancing and sanitization measures.
To help get food to as many people as possible, meetings were also set up between Gleaners, Forgotten Harvest, and every other food distribution service in the state as part of the Food Bank Council of Michigan. At first the meetings were daily.
Mayes recalled this was a great help and provided a chance for all the organizations to coordinate.
“It was a chance to learn from each other,” says Gleaners Averill.
Some aid was more dramatic than just the day-to-day of getting food to people in need.
For example, many people were left without their local grocery store when the Harper Food Center in Detroit burned down. Rev. Dr. Steve Bland, Jr. of Liberty Temple Baptist Church jumped in and organized the Harper Food Center Citizen Recovery Project.
It was a collection of a diverse groups that helped provide assistance to those effected by the fire. It included Gleaners Community Food Bank, the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC (JCRC/AJC), Hearts for Humanity, Yad Ezra, and Hazon Detroit.
The CARES Act also helped provide services. It funded a $400,000 program at Wayne County that supplied nearly 15,000 boxes of non-perishable food to families living in Wayne County communities. The boxes were distributed at pre-existing Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest food distribution sites as well as special locations determined by Wayne County based on community need.
Organizations like Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners faced many challenges during the pandemic, and there are concerns that the vaccine may not be able to cure.
“The number (of people needing food) perhaps will be larger after the pandemic than before,” says Averill. The challenge is to make sure everyone in need knows there is help out there. “If there is distribution in your area, please spread the word,” she says.
Any time there is a major disruption to society, it is hard to put all the pieces back together. Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest will work past the rebuild toward making hunger in Southeastern Michigan a distant memory.