Detroit’s Community Organizations Are Changing to Meet the Needs of Food Insecure Detroiters During the Pandemic
Local in early April Nonprofit Focus: Hope received a request for assistance from one of the recipients of the Food for Seniors program. Frank Kubik, Focus: Hope’s Director of Food Programs, clearly remembers the call: The person on the line was a 70-year-old woman who had COVID-19 and couldn’t leave home to buy groceries.
“She also looked after her parents, one of whom also had the virus,” says Kubik. “They needed food so I took it over, and when I got there, their mother, who was 89 years old, was standing on their porch.” It turned out that the woman’s mother had also tested positive for the disease, but was asymptomatic. “She told me that her daughter was not doing well and lay down after calling us. She was worried about her, but prayed she would be better. Her husband was 92 years old and virus free but needed help from her daughter to get around. ”
This family’s experience is not unusual. Since the earliest stay-at-home orders in mid-March, efforts have been made across the country to ensure fresh groceries reach the ailing residents and families. However, in southeast Michigan, many people were already familiar with the everyday realities of hunger. Although food insecurity hits nationwide headlines this fall as the impact of the COVID-19 crisis deepens, the struggle to improve access to nutritious food and eliminate the hunger gap is a familiar struggle for Detroiters.
“Food security has always been an issue in Detroit. The pandemic only made it worse, ”said Charmane Neal, founder of Hey Y’all Detroit, one of the youngest organizations to emerge in response to the great need for food access. Working with longtime friend Jacob Wynn, a chairman of the Young Politician Committee, Neal’s Hey Y’all Detroit launched a number of outreach programs in June, including selling local farm boxes and hosting free farmers markets across the city . “We already have so many boundaries that prevent people from being healthy,” says Neal. “A lot of people I know get their food from the dollar store, gas station, or fast-food restaurant.”
Neal says many people are focused on Detroit’s impressive post-bankruptcy cleanup, but often overlook the systemic problems in the neighborhoods. “Other people don’t know how bad it is because they are focused on making Detroit come back. They don’t talk about where I and Jacob are from, ”she says. “We want to give something back to the forgotten residents of this community because they urgently need it.”
In the past month alone, a number of reports have surfaced tracking what NPR’s Michel Martin calls an “urgent and hidden crisis” across the country. Most of these reports point to the same data compiled by the USDA and Feeding America, a national not-for-profit consortium of over 200 food banks: Over 54 million Americans, including 18 million children, could face food insecurity by 2020.
Locally, Feeding America predicted that food insecurity in southeast Michigan could increase by up to 5 percent over the course of the pandemic. This corresponds to an estimated 212,000 people at risk of starvation. According to Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study, “a third of people who are unsure about food may not be eligible for government food aid.” This creates even bigger barriers for millions of American households who may be missing out on unemployment insurance, stimulus checks and enhanced benefits under the CARES bill, which expired in late July. The latest version of Map the Meal Gap, based on USDA 2018 data, also found that food insecurity disproportionately affects black households, finding they are more than twice as likely to be affected as white households, not Spanish households.
As the local hunger crisis has intensified, many food banks and aid organizations have expanded their reach. Meanwhile, some individuals, like the founders of the North End Sharing Table and the Detroit Community Fridge, have shown the power of helping one another in meeting community needs.
In its 43rd year of operation, the Gleaners Community Food Bank estimated it has reached “an additional 50,000 households per month” since Governor Gretchen Whitmer placed her first stay at home on Tuesday, March 24th. “We knew we had to increase our community impact,” said Stacy Averill, a representative for Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit.
Gleaners’ organizers added dozens of mobile sales locations and box sales locations to meet the increased demand for food in 2020. While the effort has been successful, the needs of all pandemic-affected local populations have not been met with food insecurity. “We had an average of 250 households in each of our mobile distributions, but we knew there were others – seniors, home patients, pregnant mothers, and those with chronic health problems – who were also in need but couldn’t necessarily travel to the mass distribution these mobile locations, ”says Averill. “We have started reaching out to current and new partners to distribute boxes directly to these houses.”
Focus: Hope followed. Given the risk to the 41,000 low-income seniors the Food for Seniors program offers each month, the nonprofit immediately switched to contactless options. “We never closed [we] has just changed the business model, ”says Kubik. “We informed the community and started offering roadside collection and home delivery.”
“It feels good to have a real meal that is specially prepared. It feels like a pleasure as opposed to a necessity. ”
For Focus: Hope and Gleaners, these recalculations of their models were all about the ubiquitous word of the year, “Pivot,” a euphemism for the operational adjustments needed to resume business in the “new normal” of the pandemic. But something deeper also took place in the hearts of Kubik and his team at Focus: Hope: a deeper perspective. “You only notice how difficult it was when you see it firsthand,” says Kubik, recalling his conversation with the older family with several generations. “Here were three people in their house, two of whom had COVID-19. I was wondering what they would do and how difficult it would be for them to keep it up. ”
Brilliant Detroit, a non-profit organization focused on child health, family support, and educational programs in the Detroit neighborhoods, also answered calls for food assistance. Brilliant has always provided meals and weekly distributions of food and supplies throughout his personal programming. However, during the pandemic, Brilliant launched a massive new program to bring ready-made meals to people in need. Coupled with a new grocery delivery app called Help Kitchen, Brilliant Detroit is working with five local restaurants and food trucks – Yum Village, Señor Lopez Mexican Restaurant, Twisted Mitten, Pink Flamingo and Saffron De Twah – to have ready-to-eat dinners offered residents. The program has served more than 51,000 people since it began in late June.
“There are a number of goals [this partnership]“Says Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit. According to Eggleton, Brilliant hoped to reduce food insecurity in Detroit communities while providing some form of income to minority-owned restaurants struggling during the pandemic. “The other thing I think is important is the need for human dignity amid the pandemic,” says Eggleton. “It feels good to have a real meal that is specially prepared. It feels like a pleasure as opposed to a necessity. “
The partnership with Brilliant Detroit prompted Omar Anani, head chef and owner of Detroit’s famous Moroccan-American restaurant Saffron De Twah and the Twisted Mitten Food Truck, Saffron Community Kitchen, a free ready-made meal service already affiliated with a variety of nonprofits is and city services. Anani points out that in many cases, a box of products isn’t always the most helpful – that the cost and guesswork that unknown items can create is another barrier to recipients. “Most people don’t even know what a patty gourd looks like, much less how to cook one,” Anani tells Eater. “All of these farms can donate food, but many places won’t accept it because they don’t have the resources to prepare it.” In this case, the critical link between resources and fighting hunger is a new concerted effort in Detroit hospitality. “We really don’t know how deep the gap is in the city,” says Anani. “In the beginning we served 20 to 30 meals a day, but at two locations it’s 500, 600, 700 meals a day – that’s five days a week.”
Neal understands that a box of raw produce is only half the battle in tackling food insecurity in the city. “We want to educate people about different ways of consuming vegetables and products,” she says. “We want to get this message to the Detroit Public Schools because we want to [kids] to have general health – mentally and physically. When you eat better, you feel better. We’re not used to that in Detroit. “
The USDA estimates that 30 to 40 percent of America’s food supply is wasted each year. Is it an oversimplification to justify that there is much work to be done to meet the needs of the 54 million who will struggle to obtain food in 2020? Perhaps this urgently growing need could pave the way for new and resilient supply chains sourced from community foundations like Gleaners, Focus: Hope, Forgotten Harvest, the Detroit Phoenix Center, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Brilliant Detroit, which are most closely associated with these connect in need first. Perhaps there is even an inspired future for new hospitality projects with a more seasoned perspective on the great need that comes with it. And maybe the initiatives that emerge better reflect the neighborhoods they live in.
If that’s the case, the blueprint could be here in Detroit. According to Eggleton, it’s all about “listening to the community”.
• The Eater Detroit Guide to Help [ED]
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