Friday, November 19, 2010

Detroit Food Pantries Struggle to Keep Up With Growing Need

November 18, 2010

Food pantries struggle to keep up with growing need

The Detroit News

Lisa Cain has watched some of Metro Detroit's hungriest and most desperate people faint in line as they waited up to an hour for the limited amount of food her Rochester Hills pantry can provide them.

"There will literally be people who are starving," said Cain, founder of God's Helping Hands. "There are days that are that bad."

Her staff now keeps at the ready juice, peanut butter and cheese crackers to serve the recipients — seniors with medical conditions and self-sacrificing parents, some of whom have missed meals for days.

Lingering double-digit unemployment is projected to fuel a hunger crisis in Metro Detroit over the next three years. By 2013, one out of four people in the region won't know where two of their daily meals will come from, according to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. In 2009, there were 706,000 people hungry in Metro Detroit; by 2013, 952,000 people could be in need.

"The biggest challenge is how much free and low-cost food is available," said Gerry Brisson, senior vice president of Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, the largest provider of emergency food in the state.

Gleaners will increase its food distribution — last year at 37 million pounds — by 10 percent each year for the next three years, joining other agencies in Metro Detroit looking to dramatically ramp up food distribution — some by as much as double — in the next three years.

"We consider that to be an absolute minimum to get more and more food out, because our partners are so pressed to get more and more food," Brisson said.

Many Metro Detroit families already are feeling the strains of a food shortage — the long waits at the pantries, rationing at soup kitchens and agencies resorting to cheaper filler foods — pasta, breads, canned goods — to fill more stomachs. The agencies also are turning to unprecedented solutions by offering food-budgeting classes and tapping new sources to rescue discarded food: farms, hydroponic growers and food manufacturers.

But food agencies are split on whether emergency food alone can meet Metro Detroit's needs. Some say the volume of food is there — estimating that 1 billion pounds a year is wasted in Metro Detroit — while others believe that emergency food alone cannot fill the monumental gap that is projected to come.

Less on the list

At God's Helping Hands, drops in food supply mean sending families home with less: two cans of fruit, instead of four; one box of cereal, not two.

"Sometimes, that breaks your heart, but there's nothing we can do," said Cain, who founded the pantry 12 years ago with her husband, Brian Cain. "We have never turned anybody away. …We don't want to start now."

On a recent morning, a half-dozen seniors and mothers waited outside the office on Star-Batt Drive a half-hour before doors opened. Once inside, a staffer handed each person a paper stub with a number — similar to those pulled at butcher counters — and then directed them into a waiting room. There, they sat silently until their number was called. On some days, volunteers distribute sandwiches and water.

Elizabeth Huff, who is hypoglycemic, gratefully accepts the food.

"Standing there in line or sitting there when I should be eating — it's not a good combination," said Huff, a mother of two from Rochester Hills.

Out of work for a year, Huff relies on pantry food, her monthly food stamps ($59) and jobless benefits ($350). Her husband, meanwhile, earns $8.10 an hour working as a clerk at a nearby Speedway gas station.

Finding solutions

Last year, Forgotten Harvest — an agency in Oak Park that rescues surplus food from stores and restaurants and delivers it to shelters, soup kitchens and pantries around southeastern Michigan — redistributed 19.4 million pounds of food, double its volume two years ago. The agency plans to nearly double its volume again by 2013.

Having already tapped many of the major groceries in the region, the agency will seek out farmers and bulk food manufacturers that regularly discard unsellable food, said chief development officer Russ Russell.

"We know we face a monumental task," he said. "It's really our hope to do even more."

Forgotten Harvest's undertaking will require expanding the agency's truck fleet and kitchen facilities and raising another $9 million. Forgotten Harvest launched its fundraising campaign last month, distributing donation envelopes in daily newspapers.

For now, trucks deliver food to 155 agencies, while 77 other agencies are on a waiting list — 90 percent of those added in the last two years. Most are church pantries seeking to supplement their stretched food supply with cost-free food, unable to accommodate the additional families seeking assistance.

"To add new agencies when existing agencies are desperate and in need of more food — then it becomes an efficiency issue," Russell said.

A pantry at Christ Church in Redford Township has sat on the waiting list for two years.

Pastor Mark Einem contacted the agency because he wanted to distribute cost-free fruits and vegetables to pantry visitors, mostly from Brightmoor, a section of Detroit dotted with decaying houses and drug dealers.

The church distributes mostly canned foods, purchased from Gleaners at several cents per can. With shrinking donations in the last year, buying fresh retail food is out of the question, Einem said.

"We just like to be responsible and provide a good diet for them," Einem said.

"We just don't have access to that kind of produce."

Meat has run low at the Detroit Rescue Mission. In order to prepare the 10,500 meals served each month, cooks there try to generously apportion the ground meat in stews, casseroles and spaghetti sauce.

"It's bad. It's hard. It's challenging," said Chad Audi, president of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries at 3535 Third St., which serves the poor, homeless and drug-addicted in the city.

On a recent afternoon, William Garner, the facility's cook, scanned boxes of food in a freezer to plan the next day's dinner menu.

"What I'm looking for is something that I can make a large quantity of, so I can stretch it out," Garner said.

Some of the longtime residents have noticed the change: more potatoes, more pasta and no milk on some mornings.

"We feel the shortage, we do," said Ed Williams, 60, a recovering alcoholic who became homeless when his mother's home went into foreclosure last year. Williams now lives on his Social Security payments.

Brisson, of Gleaners, said low-income families are going to have to learn how to be more resourceful.

"They're going to have to know how to stretch every dollar because the answers are going to come slow," he said.


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