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A woman wearing a black mask cradles a large cardboard box filled with eggs, celery, cucumbers, squash, and more. Gleaners [Courtesy photo]

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How Community Organizations Are Changing to Meet the Needs of Food Insecure Detroiters

The pandemic has exacerbated pressures on local food pantries, but Detroit’s robust aid networks are expanding to get fresh food to people who need it

In early April, local nonprofit Focus: Hope received a request for assistance from one of its Food for Seniors program recipients. Frank Kubik, Focus: Hope’s director of food programs, remembers the call distinctly: The person on the line was a 70-year-old woman who had COVID-19 and couldn’t leave her home to get groceries.

“She was also taking care of her parents, one of whom had the virus as well,” says Kubik. “They needed food, so I took it over, and when I got there, her mother, who was 89, was standing on her front porch.” As it turned out, the woman’s mother had tested positive for the disease as well, but was asymptomatic. “She told me that her daughter wasn’t feeling well, and went to lay down after she had called us. She was worried about her, but was praying that she would get better. Her husband was 92 years old and was virus-free, but needed assistance from her daughter to get around.”

That family’s experience isn’t unusual. Since the earliest stay-at-home orders in mid-March, efforts have sprung up across the country to ensure that fresh food is reaching struggling residents and families. In southeast Michigan, however, many people were already well acquainted with the everyday realities of hunger. Though food insecurity is making national headlines this fall as the implications of the COVID-19 crisis continues to compound, the fight to improve access to nutritious food and address the hunger gap is a familiar struggle for Detroiters.

“Food security has always been an issue in Detroit. The pandemic only made it worse,” says Charmane Neal, founder of Hey Y’all Detroit, one of the latest organizations to emerge in response to the grave need for access to nutritional necessities. Partnering with longtime friend Jacob Wynn, a chairman of the Young Politician Committee, Neal’s Hey Y’all Detroit launched in June with a number of outreach programs, including offering locally sourced farm boxes and hosting free farmers markets across the city. “We already have so many boundaries prohibiting people from having good health,” Neal says. “A lot of people I know get their food from the Dollar Store, a gas station, or a fast-food restaurant.”

Neal says that while many people are focused on Detroit’s impressive post-bankruptcy redevelopment, they’re often overlooking the systemic issues within the city’s neighborhoods. “Other people don’t realize how bad it is, because they’re focused on Detroit coming back. They’re not speaking about where me and Jacob come from,” she says. “We want to give back to the forgotten residents of this community because they need it bad.”

Over the course of the past month alone, a slew of reports have surfaced tracing what NPR’s Michel Martin calls an “urgent and hidden crisis” throughout the country. Most of these reports point to the same data produced by the USDA and Feeding America, a national nonprofit consortium of over 200 food banks: Over 54 million Americans, including 18 million children, may struggle with food insecurity in 2020.

Locally, Feeding America projected that food insecurity in southeast Michigan could rise by as much as 5 percent over the course of the pandemic, a figure that corresponds to an estimated 212,000 individuals at risk of going hungry. What’s more, according to Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study, “one-third of people who are food insecure may not qualify for federal food assistance,” a condition that creates even greater obstacles to millions of American households who may be missing out on unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, and expanded benefits through the CARES Act, which expired at the end of July. The latest version of Map the Meal Gap, based on USDA data from 2018, also revealed that food insecurity disproportionately impacts Black households, finding that they are more than twice as likely to experience it as white, non-Hispanic households.

As the hunger crisis locally has surged, many food banks and relief organizations have expanded their reach. Meanwhile, some individuals, such as the founders of the Sharing Table in the North End and the Detroit Community Fridge, have demonstrated the strength of mutual aid in meeting the needs of communities.

In its 43rd year of operation, Gleaners Community Food Bank estimated that it’s reached “an additional 50,000 households each month” since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first stay-at-home order on Tuesday, March 24. “We knew we needed to increase our impact on the community,” says Stacy Averill, a representative for Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Organizers for Gleaners added dozens of mobile distribution sites and box distribution sites to meet the increased need for food resources in 2020. While the effort was successful, it still didn’t meet the needs of everyone in the local population who was being impacted by pandemic food insecurity. “We averaged 250 households at every one of our mobile distributions, but we knew there were others — seniors, homebound patients, pregnant mothers, and individuals with chronic health issues — who were also in need, but weren’t necessarily able to travel to the mass distribution at these mobile sites,” Averill says. “We started reaching out to current and new partners to help distribute boxes directly to those homes.”

Focus: Hope followed suit. Observing the risk to the 41,000 low-income seniors its Food for Seniors program serves each month, the nonprofit pivoted to contact-free options immediately. “We never shut down, [we] just shifted the business model,” Kubik says. “We got the word out to the community and began offering curbside pickup and home delivery.”

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 necessary to resume business in the “new normal” of the pandemic. But something more profound also took place in the hearts of Kubik and his team at Focus: Hope: a deepened perspective. “You just don’t realize how difficult it has been until you see it firsthand,” Kubik says, recalling his conversation with the elderly, multigenerational family. “Here were three people in their home, two of whom had COVID-19. It left me wondering about what they were going to do and how tough it would be for them to get through this.”

Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit focused on children’s health, family support, and education programs in Detroit neighborhoods, heeded the call for meal assistance as well. Brilliant has always provided meals during its in-person programming and offered weekly food and supplies distribution, but during the pandemic it embarked on a massive new program to bring prepared meals to people in need. Connecting with a new food delivery app called Help Kitchen, Brilliant Detroit partnered with five area restaurants and food trucks — Yum Village, Señor Lopez Mexican Restaurant, Twisted Mitten, Pink Flamingo, and Saffron De Twah — to provide ready-to-eat dinners to residents. The program has served more than 51,000 people since it began in late June.

“There are a number of goals through [this partnership],” says Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit. Eggleton says that Brilliant hoped to help mitigate food insecurity in Detroit communities while providing a form of income to minority-owned restaurants that were struggling during the pandemic. “The other thing that I think is important through all of this is the need for human dignity in the midst of the pandemic,” Eggleton says. “It feels good to have a real meal that’s prepared special. It feels like a treat as opposed to a necessity.”

The partnership with Brilliant Detroit prompted Omar Anani, chef and owner of Detroit’s celebrated Moroccan-American restaurant Saffron De Twah and the Twisted Mitten food truck, to launch Saffron Community Kitchen, a free prepared-meal service that’s already linked up with a variety of nonprofits and city services. Anani points out that, in many cases, a box of produce isn’t always the most helpful — that the expense and guesswork that unfamiliar items may create is yet another obstacle to recipients. “Most people don’t even know what a pattypan squash looks like, let alone how to cook one,” Anani tells Eater. “All these farms can donate food, but a lot of places won’t accept it because they don’t have the resources to prepare it.” In this case, the critical linkage between resources and the quelling of hunger is a new concerted effort in Detroit hospitality. “We really don’t know how deep the chasm of need is in the city,” Anani says. “At first, we were serving 20 to 30 meals a day, but it has ballooned to 500, 600, 700 meals a day at two locations — that’s five days a week.”

Neal is aware that a box of raw produce is only half the battle in combating food insecurity in the city. “We want to educate people on different ways to consume vegetables and produce,” she says “We want to get that message into Detroit Public Schools because we want [kids] to have overall health — mental and physical. When you eat better, you feel better. We’re not accustomed to that in Detroit.”

The USDA estimates that, each year, 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in America is wasted. Is it an oversimplification to reason that there’s plenty to go around, to meet the needs of the 54 million that will struggle to obtain food in 2020? Perhaps this urgently growing need could pave the way for new and robust supply chains stemming from community foundations like Gleaners, Focus: Hope, Forgotten Harvest, the Detroit Phoenix Center, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Brilliant Detroit that connect with those most in need first. Perhaps there’s even an inspired future for new hospitality projects with more seasoned perspective on the great need that surrounds. And perhaps the initiatives that arise are truer reflections of the neighborhoods they inhabit.

If that’s the case, the blueprint could be here in Detroit. According to Eggleton, it’s all a matter of “listening to the community.”

The Eater Detroit Guide on How to Help [ED]

Saffron De Twah

7636 Gratiot Avenue, , MI 48213 (586) 359-6138 Visit Website

Pink Flamingo

2746 Vermont Street, , MI 48216 (313) 801-4423 Visit Website

Yum Village

6500 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202 Visit Website
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