As food insecurity rises, area agencies are looking to the community for help

Food insecurity continues to be an issue across the region as the pandemic continues.


In Bay County, 557 people have contacted 211 of Northeast Michigan since January for help related to COVID-19. Nearly 29% of those people needed help with food. Local agencies serving food to families are seeing a rise in people receiving help.


In Bay City, the Dow Bay Area Family Y Free Youth Food Program has fed 50,000 meals to children 18 and under since March, says Zack Booth, who coordinates the program. In addition, they’ve distributed 1,100 emergency food boxes to local families.


Zack Booth from the Dow Bay Area Family YMCA carries one of the food boxes available as part of the program.Booth says prior to the pandemic, the Family Y fed about 60 children a day. When the pandemic closed schools and businesses, the Y stepped up its program and served about 200 meals a day. In March, Route Bay City sent photographer Ashley Brown to the Family Y to capture photos of the distribution.


The number of meals served dropped to about 80 meals a day in July, but is slowly climbing back up to about 130 meals a day in August.


For now, Booth says the program doesn’t need volunteers. In order to minimize exposure, he has the same people distributing food each day. “We’re trying to keep the number of people in the building as low as possible,” he says.


The food is donated by Hidden Harvest and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. In addition, the Bay Area Community Foundation has provided grants to cover expenses. Recently, S.C. Johnson donated bags to package the food.


“We’ve received a lot of help from businesses around town,” Booth says.


To qualify for help, call (888) 636-4211 for a referral to the program. The number connects you to 211 of Northeast Michigan, which can provide you with information about where you can find help with food and other services.

If you qualify, meals are distributed in the north parking lot of the Family Y, 225 Washington Ave., between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.


Major Rick Ray of the Salvation Army at 401 Tenth St. says serving lunches to the hungry provides more than nourishment. “It’s a little bit of hope we can give them in all the chaos,” Ray says.


Prior to the COVID-19 closures, Ray says the Salvation Army served between 95 and 125 lunches at its Matthew 25 Café. Since March 19, the free mid-day meals have gone to an average of 325 people each day. On one day, the café set a new record, serving 425 meals. Since March 18, the café has served 37,000 meals.


“We’ve seen our regular people, but now we’re seeing new people,” Ray says. “People are losing their jobs and getting laid off. We’re seeing the working people.”


Regulations designed to control the spread of disease forced the Salvation Army to serve no-contact lunches. They invested in to-go containers, plastic bags, disposable silverware, and bottled water. A local church, Grace Presbyterian, stepped up and started a Baking Brigade to deliver cookies and other desserts for the meals. Ray says the Baking Brigade started with about 25 bakers. Now, 72 people bake for the Matthew 25 Café.


The pandemic not only increased the kitchen’s expenses, it also could limit the Salvation Army’s fundraising plans. Ray says the Red Kettle collection drive during the December holidays may not be possible this year.


“It’s really put our budget out of whack,” Ray says. “We don’t know what Christmas is going to look like. I’m looking at some stuff and putting a team together. We’re working all this out.”


In the meantime, any donations help. Ray says he welcomes donations of food and paper products, but money is more practical. The Salvation Army gets discounted rates on the products it needs for the food programs. “We can make a dollar stretch to feed three or four families,” Ray says.


If people want to donate goods, Ray says Bosco Food Services keeps a list of the items they regularly use.


In addition to the Matthew 25 Café – which serves individual meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Sundays – the Salvation Army offers food boxes to people in need and essential workers. No qualifications are needed to visit the Matthew 25 café. Families need to meet income requirements for the food boxes. And essential workers must show proof of employment to qualify for the program.


The program runs with five paid staff members. Volunteers are key to keeping the programs going. Visit the Salvation Army website to learn how to help.


Isabella County


Sarah Adkins, executive director of the Isabella Community Soup KitchenThe Isabella Community Soup Kitchen used to serve around 85 meals per day. Now they serve 200.


“In March, our facility closed for three weeks. Then, when we reopened in April – I think April 15 – there were still people coming that we knew were new people, but it wasn’t until the beginning of May that we started to see a significant increase consistently,” says Sarah Adkins, executive director of the ICSK.


Not only has there been a change in the number of people served by the ICSK, there has also been a change in the demographic of those served. Adkins says she is seeing more families with children and more seniors needing the food provided by the ICSK.


As the demand for services has risen, so have the costs of providing double the meals at the ICSK. However, while the need has just over doubled, the cost has increased tenfold. The ICSK used to spend around $100 per week to serve around 85 daily meals. Now, it spends between $1,000 and $1,200 weekly to serve about 200 daily meals.


In order to accommodate its new “to-go” method of providing meals, the ICSK had to purchase additional carts to wheel the food out, step stools to help people prepare the additional meals, and other items. Additionally, Adkins says a large part of the reason costs have historically been kept low is because 99% of the food that is cooked is donated. However, cooking and preparing double the number of hot meals and packaging them in to-go sacks has proved to be challenging and costly - especially with a decrease in the number of volunteers.

She is looking for volunteers Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Applications can be found online, and a 10-15 minute orientation must be completed. She says safety measures are in place for volunteers that include daily health screenings, required masks, hair nets, and gloves, and social distancing.

Midland County


Increased costs due to providing single-use materials has also been a problem for Midland’s Open Door.


“That happened right away and has continued. We have to use a lot of paper and plastic products, and that added a lot of costs to our nonprofit,” says Renee Pettinger, executive director of Midland’s Open Door. “Having to do individual packaging – whether it’s utensils, condiments, or clamshells – has been significant.”


Renee Pettinger, executive director of Midland’s Open DoorPettinger says Midland’s Open door saw a “massive increase” in the demand for services provided by their soup kitchen starting in March – with the soup kitchen providing around triple the meals it normally does; however, those numbers have steadily dropped back down to normal over the past month and a half. She attributes this to the generosity that the community saw after it faced catastrophic flooding earlier this summer, as well as more people beginning to receive benefits that they can use to purchase food.


No matter how many people it is serving, though, Pettinger – like Adkins – says volunteers are sorely needed right now.


In fact, a lack of volunteers has also contributed to increased costs at Midland’s Open Door. In order to accommodate its “grab-and-go” method of providing meals, the nonprofit extended its feeding hours from noon-1:30 p.m. to 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Without as many volunteers to help prepare or serve the meals, those positions had to be filled by paid staff members.


“There was a bit of a vacuum when it came to volunteers,” says Pettinger. “We lost a vast majority of them during COVID and most of them are not comfortable returning yet.”