Hungry: Pandemic highlights Detroiters’ challenges to access food

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In addition to rent, mortgage, and eviction help, food security and access to water are an ongoing problem for Detroit residents, according to Wayne Metro. (BridgeDetroit file photo by Louis Aguilar)

Just before Michigan’s stay-at-home order was enacted in March, Chanel Taylor realized Detroit’s older residents may have a hard time getting to the grocery store to stock up like their neighbors.

What the 22-year-old and a group of friends thought would be one week of food donations turned into over 500,000 meals since March — and still going.

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That’s not surprising to Detroiters who have been committed to the city’s food movement or those who have been working with the city’s most vulnerable families. Nutritious food is an essential item that many couldn’t afford long before COVID-19. As the threat of coronavirus continues to linger, the city of Detroit, state government and local organizations are cultivating partnerships, extending deadlines and expanding access to programs in an emergency response measure to ensure residents eat. But food security, or the ability to access nutritious food without economic burden, has long been an issue for Detroiters who lack reliable methods of transportation, clean water and affordable utilities. Now, some residents say, is the time for everyone to pitch in to create long-term sustainable change.

Chanel Taylor and friends started a food program in metro Detroit that has served over 500,000 meals since March. (courtesy photo)

Taylor, a Southfield native, said there can be a disconnect between setting up programs to help others and fulfilling the needs of the community. When her group of friends initially started the meal program they thought the best way to move forward would be to pick-up and drop-off groceries through online store orders.

“We didn’t even do one order that way. We found out not everybody has a bank account or a credit card and at Kroger and Meijer you can’t use your EBT card online,” Taylor said. “We were coming from a place from our privilege and understanding but that’s not everybody’s experience.”

Locally, ongoing efforts to feed Detroiters continue. Detroit Public Schools Community District has a grab-and-go food program where children who are learning virtually or face-to-face can participate. The City of Detroit’s Parks and Recreation Division extended meal services for children at recreation centers and the city’s home delivery program has been extended through the end of the year.

A report presented to Detroit’s Food Policy Council showed that about 40% of Detroiters were food insecure and enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pre-coronavirus. Alex Hill, who wrote the 2019 Detroit Food Metrics Report, said food security can be difficult to track and is usually the result of not having access to other basic needs.

“Usually you may be experiencing [food insecurity] for one week and then not again for another two weeks,” Hill said. “It’s a consistent issue but not persistent.”

The same report  found that Detroit has over 300 community gardens, but lost 50 of those gardens between 2018 and 2019. The number of children enrolled in WIC, SNAP and the amount of school food spending within the same period remained flat.

Hill said he didn’t have 2020 data yet but said calls to United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline can give a glimpse of coronavirus’ effect on Detroiters’ food supply. According to Hill, Detroit peaked in mid-March at 800 calls for food assistance out of 2,600 calls total. By the end of May, when pandemic EBT became available, there was a drop in food assistance requests to 61 out of 1,200 total calls.

According to a University of Michigan study in August, 56% of Detroiters said they will be unable to afford the food they need in coming months. 

Hill has overseen the Detroit Food Map Initiative at Wayne State University since 2011 and is a former employee of the city’s Health Department. He said the pandemic has highlighted underlying policies and systems that have contributed to unequal opportunity. Hill said policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that reduces the amount of taxes owed for those with low to-moderate incomes, would be more beneficial long-term rather than asking charities to provide funding for emergency food boxes.

Chanel Taylor, 22, worked with friends to create a food program in metro Detroit during coronavirus. Photo provided by Trusscott Rossman.

“The emergency food system has really stepped up to the plate which is great but unfortunately we have an emergency food system that is really well funded,” Hill said. “Our families in Detroit are really not that secure.”  

Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency received significant grant funding from philanthropic entities, state and local government earlier this year to support families during the pandemic. In August, Wayne Metro’s executive director Louis Piszker said they saw an uptick in requests for rent, mortgage, and eviction services while food security and access to water continued to be an ongoing problem.

In response to the community’s food needs during the pandemic, Wayne Metro partnered with Atlas Wholesale Food Company and Gleaners Food Bank to create a weekly home delivery Quarantine Box program for up to 800 residents in quarantine.

“With everything that’s going on right now and the state of COVID-19 and how it’s affecting our area and region, in our mind there’s no other question but to help,” said John Kohl, CEO of Atlas.

The community action agency received $2 million to scale up the program, which will allow over 1,000 residents to use a web-based marketplace to select pre-made foods and personal protection equipment. Atlas set up the web-based platform and participants are given $250 to spend in their online shopping cart to pick meals they want to eat.

The program began in July and Wayne Metro said they would continue to provide the service until the money runs out.

“We’re getting a lot of dollars but shorter and shorter durations to spend it,” Piszker said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration says they are concerned about food security. Earlier this year the governor increased access to SNAP and extended additional food assistance for Michiganders. She announced the formation of the state’s Food Security Council in August.

Patrice Brown of the Eastern Market Corp.  in Detroit sits on the Governor’s new Food Security Council, Detroit’s Food Policy Council, and the board of Michigan’s Farmers’ Market Association. According to Brown, food security necessitates local and state entities to consider factors impacting access to nutritious food, not just whether families have food on any given day.

“What I’m excited about in serving on the food security council is to address some of the housing and transportation barriers,” she said. “It matters if you have cooking utensils and access to refrigerators and stoves, how you sustain yourself as a resident and being healthy in spaces as well.”

Brown said many Detroiters just aren’t equipped to travel to a grocery store and bring items home if the trip takes several hours on the bus or if they have to ride a bike or scooter to get there—especially during winter months. While her work with Eastern Market lends knowledge of the many farmers markets, grocery stores, food banks, and farmers who are working together to increase food access, Brown said she’s unsure how long these quick fixes will last if coronavirus persists.

Her suggestion for Detroiters who want to see sustainable change: Get involved. She said residents should try to attend Detroit Food Policy Council meetings every second Tuesday of every other month to have their voices heard. The next virtual meeting is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m. She also suggested volunteering at local farmer’s markets to learn about Michigan’s food systems. For more information about and to RSVP to DFPC regularly scheduled meetings and events check their website, call 313-833-0396, or email info@detroitfoodPC.org

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