Detroit food pantry turns drive-thru amid COVID-19
Henry Cook saved just enough to move out of a homeless shelter.
After four months in the system, 53-year-old Cook has recently moved into his new residence in Mexicantown with his 20-year-old son with developmental disabilities. Still, money is tight.
That’s why he’s grateful that places like the Mercado Food Hub Pantry are getting creative and still serving the community amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pantry operators turned to convert the site into a drive-through and walk-in pantry to ease concerns about the spread of the virus.
“It kind of gave me a joy because people are still trying to help,” said Cook.
Cook and his son took backpacks for a walk on Wednesday to stock up on groceries from the pantry at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit at 2826 Bagley St., he said. There he found workers stationed out there serving the Southwest Detroiters with food.
The pantry is one of a number of facilities affiliated with the nonprofit Gleaners Community Food Bank in southeast Michigan, which is switching to drive-through services to comply with health officials’ recommendations on social distancing, Gleaner’s spokeswoman Kristin Sokul said in a voice message on Friday.
Although an exact number was not available, Sokul said the majority of Gleaners’ 500+ partner agencies are moving to a drive-through or walk-through pantry model. Gleaners also plans to open up to 54 additional locations via mobile food centers shortly.
The customer’s choice of pantry in the Engagement Center is designed to preserve customers’ dignity and enable them to purchase their own groceries, said Carmen Mattia, senior director of the center.
The Ford Motor Company Fund, the automaker’s philanthropic branch, opened the center, filled with nonprofit partners, in 2013.
Currently, the pantry is the only service open at the site due to COVID-19 concerns, Mattia said.
To address concerns about the spread of the virus, staff are now loading carts with choices determined by the pantry based on family size and delivering them to customers who line up outside, Mattia said. Customers are responsible for loading the groceries into their cars, then the staff clean up the shopping carts and the process repeats itself.
The pantry serves about 500 families a month, Mattia said. Amid the pandemic, more and more people are showing up to go shopping without an appointment, she said.
“People just come up to us and ask, ‘Can we get something to eat? Is there any way I can get in line with the rest of the people? ‘”, She said.
In that case, emergency food packages will be prepared, said Pamela Alexander, director of community development at the Ford Fund.
Cook has used this option twice in the past week, both times under the new drive-thru model, he said.
On Wednesday, he and his son Somier went away with potatoes, canned peas, onions, apples, tomatoes, corn and cucumbers, Cook said
“We have good backpacks,” he said with a laugh.
Cook wanted to visit the pantry with or without additional COVID-19 precautions, but said he was glad to see it on the spot.
For others, like Jodie Frazier (54), the new setup meant fewer worries.
Her future mother-in-law, whom she calls “mother” and helps with pantry visits, is more susceptible to disease because of dialysis, she said.
Frazier, a caretaker for her fiance and several others, said the quick roadside option meant less exposure to other people and surfaces in the pantry. Trips to the pantry typically take around 40 minutes. One Wednesday lasted about 15 minutes, she said.
“I’m glad you thought of that because, like I said, with this virus you don’t know what it’s going to do, where it’s going,” she said.
Daissy Martinez, 20, said she was in the pantry under normal conditions and didn’t mind not choosing food herself. She went away with items like vegetables, milk, chocolate milk, cereal, rice, canned food, french fries, and peanuts, she said.
She volunteered at Gleaners, she said. Now they are of great help in a time of uncertainty.
“It’s a great help, especially because the work is slowing down. They still help families, ”she said, later adding that her husband installs sprinkler systems but currently has little work to do.
Alexander of the Ford Fund said her group plans to help with Gleaners’ mobile food banks. In the coronavirus era, the public will likely see more creativity when it comes to services like food banks, she said.
“I think in this area we had to be really innovative and find a way to deliver these critical services to the people, but also in a safe manner and taking into account the social distancing and other guidelines that are being issued,” she said.
Contact Darcie Moran: [email protected]