Report: Michigan’s food insecurity problem only got worse during COVID-19 pandemic

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Some of the many items of food found in the boxes that Focus Hope was giving to seniors in November. A report on food insecurity in Michigan says Michigan needs to develop more approaches to getting food "the last mile" to vulnerable residents. (Detroit Free Press photo by Eric Seals)

The Food Security Council, which Whitmer created in August, makes recommendations in three broad areas: addressing the food needs of Michiganders, working with partners to improve the infrastructure of food programs and ensuring there’s enough of a food supply in the state.

The 24-person council made the recommendations “to inform the state’s response to a potential second wave of COVID-19 or future public health emergency,” according to a report issued in October. Whitmer released the group’s recommendations Monday.

The recommendations arrive as the state’s central 2-1-1 dashboard reports food pantries as one of the top reasons people contact the hotline and agencies that deliver meals to homebound seniors in November said they saw a surge in need, but fewer volunteers and funding. Michiganders on federal food assistance stand to get a 15% increase in benefits later this month, through the latest stimulus package.

Phillip Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, who chairs the Food Security Council, said the group set out to address “root causes as to why people are food insecure,” adding that “the biggest tool in the anti-hunger toolbox would be a job and particularly one that pays a living wage.” 

Food insecurity, or not having access to enough affordable and nutritious food, is an ongoing problem that has only heightened during the pandemic, the advisory council’s report found. Before March, about 1.3 million Michigan residents faced food insecurity and now it’s about 1.9 million — up by 600,000 and most are children, according to Feeding America.

“The needs are especially recognizable and critical during a pandemic but must continue to be addressed when the current crisis is over,” Whitmer said in a news release.

The report notes that “high food insecurity rates correlate with pronounced racial disparities, in areas such as the metro Detroit area as well as several counties in Northern Michigan in which Tribal reservations are located,” citing research conducted in 2018. 

Hey Y’all Detroit, a grassroots organization formed last summer, has been delivering free food boxes to Detroit neighborhoods since September. Its founder Charmane Neal sees the crisis unfold every day.    

“The need for food has gotten worse,” Neal said. Hey Y’all Detroit’s two person organization delivers boxes to 63 households, and recently neighbors have been asking for double the portions. “…I’ve had families reach out to me and say they haven’t really had a full meal in the last two weeks which is breaking my heart. I don’t know how it got bad again, but it’s pretty bad.” 

Too many Detroit neighborhoods lack grocery stores with nutritious food, she said, leaving residents to rely on unhealthy options. That was a problem before the pandemic, and has been made worse by the economic upheaval families are now facing. 

“People are filing unemployment, not getting their unemployment, they’re literally choosing between eating and paying their rent and so food insecurity has become a more prevalent issue,” she said.

“There is much work that remains,” said MDHHS director Robert Gordon in a news release, adding that the council’s recommendations “provide a blueprint for building upon the successes that we have achieved. No one should have to worry about having enough food during a pandemic.” 

In reviewing Michigan’s food supply and food insecurity as the pandemic began, here are some of the council’s initial findings:

  • The pandemic disrupted the state’s food supply chain, from the processing to service stage. Food normally prepared by vendors for commercial use for congregate settings — like group homes and schools — had to be re-packaged for individual homes and that was hard to do quickly and cost-effectively.  Workers were disproportionately exposed to the virus, at migrant work camps, food processing plants and in restaurants, retail food settings, while also facing a lack of paid sick time and loss of employment. 
  • There was a 38% increase in food insecure individuals across the state, and a 63% spike for children, during the pandemic. Michiganders who lost their jobs because of the pandemic needed emergency food help for the first time, “dramatically increasing the volume of inquiries for food assistance to United Way 2-1-1” and applications for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • More than half of the 484 people who responded to a June survey by the council reported “stretching their food” by eating less. Vulnerable populations like older adults and individuals with disabilities were disproportionately unable to access food.
  • Agencies and community-based organizations reported significant staff and volunteer shortages. These organizations had to ramp up their operations while trying to meet demand, but also faced COVID-19 safety restrictions and trouble accessing funds. 

Here are some of its recommendations: 

  • Food supply: Prioritize food workers for personal protective equipment and “linguistically and culturally-appropriate” workplace safety materials and create a program to provide stipends to key food food workers during the pandemic.
  • Addressing need: Develop approaches for “last-mile” food distribution like home delivery, provide incentives for retailers to accept online SNAP benefits and increase wraparound services so those who get to food pantries can also learn about other state and federal programs, and employment services and economic mobility resources. 
  • Collaborating for food and nutrition programs: Continue the formal partnership between food banks and state emergency operations personnel, develop a process for communities to create local emergency response plans with county emergency managers and develop a data-sharing and technology protocol that identifies client need and tracks total food distribution across organizations and agencies. 

As for a timeline, some of the council’s recommendations have already been implemented while others will be tied to policy change, Knight said.

“The people we’re talking about, the families we’re talking about, are they just needy or are they worthy of investment? I think that’s a fundamental question we have to ask and answer, both as a government and as a culture,” Knight said.

The council consists of the directors of the state departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Rural Development, and Labor and Economic Opportunity, and other appointees.

Whitmer, when creating the council, required an initial report with short-term findings and recommendations to be completed this month and a final report to be submitted within 18 months.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Click here to support her work.

Contact Nushrat: nrahman@freepress.com; 313-348-7558. Follow her on Twitter: @NushratR. Sign up for Bridge Detroit’s newsletter. Become a  Free Press subscriber. 

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