Hidden Harvest is taking a bite out of food insecurity in the region

When people visit our homes, we offer them something to eat or drink. It’s not really that different for Samantha McKenzie. She just views the entire Great Lakes Bay Region as her home.

McKenzie, the President and CEO of Hidden Harvest, focuses on food insecurity in Bay, Saginaw, and Midland counties. In the last 12 months, Saginaw-based Hidden Harvest has rescued 2.8 million pounds of food that would have been wasted. That food provided 2.3 million meals through 195 agencies.

Hidden Harvest is one of the United Way of Bay County’s Impact Partners. In 2023, Route Bay City is showcasing United Way projects through a United for Good series. September is Hunger Action Month.

According to its 2021-22 Annual Report, Hidden Harvest distributed 2,807,708 pounds of fresh produce, grains, canned goods, beverages, meat, dairy products, and more. Bay County alone received 472,453 pounds of supplies.

At the same time, 44 Bay County donors gave 604,673 pounds of food to Hidden Harvest. The agency delivers that food to 32 Bay County entities such as soup kitchens, food pantries, youth and senior programs, and shelters.
“We recently did a survey of our agencies to find out what’s going on with them, how things are shaking out after the pandemic. We’re hearing that even though the pandemic is over, our agencies see a greater need for the services they provide.”
– Hidden Harvest President Samantha McKenzie

Food is a major need in the area, according to 211 Northeast Michigan, a regional agency that connects people to resources. In 2022, the third-most common request to 211 was for help with food. In Bay County, 795 calls came into 211 asking for food.

“We’re really excited about the way we can support them through food,” McKenzie says.

“When you envision what your community looks like down the road, you want to make sure everyone is taken care of. With the rising cost of food, we’re seeing many, many more people, especially senior citizens, needing help. We want to make sure everybody is taken care of.”

Without the support of the United Way, Hidden Harvest would have a hard time taking a bite out of that need.

“We’re really thankful for the United Way investment in us,” McKenzie says. “It’s a good investment since the retail cost of the food we rescued and distributed would have cost the agencies about $1.4 million. Instead, they can use their dollars toward their core mission.”

While food insecurity isn’t new to the region, McKenzie says it has ramped up since the 2020 pandemic.

“We recently did a survey of our agencies to find out what’s going on with them, how things are shaking out after the pandemic,” McKenzie says. “We’re hearing that even though the pandemic is over, our agencies see a greater need for the services they provide.”

Hidden Harvest supplements the food agencies offer, letting them spend money meeting other needs. For example, food pantries can provide hygiene supplies for families.

Recently in Bay County, McKenzie heard a story about a father who gave his kids each half a stick of gum to chew on to alleviate hunger pains before bed. The family lived 16 blocks from a Salvation Army food distribution site in Bay City, but his car had a flat tire. It was tough to carry much food that distance.

The Salvation Army was able to deliver cereal, milk, fresh fruit, juice, and other healthy staples to the family. Thanks to Hidden Harvest donors, they also had some cand as special treats for the kids.

Such situations point to the need for food delivery in the community, McKenzie adds. Hidden Harvest is partnering with other agencies in the area to create “Last Mile Delivery.” That would help agencies get food to individual homes when families are facing multiple hardships.

“We’re trying to address both transportation and food insecurity,” McKenzie says. “Hidden Harvest just delivers to the agencies it partners with. But there is a need for people who do struggle with things like that bad tire.”

Hidden Harvest is using a state grant and partnering with the United Together Lupus Foundation, Second Historic Baptist Church, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, and 211 Northeast Michigan to box up food and get it to families in need. The program is in its infancy, but McKenzie hopes to offer the service a few times a year.

“We’re thinking it’s going to be hugely successful,” McKenzie says.

To continue meeting the need, Hidden Harvest needs donations of food, money, and time.

“During the height of the pandemic, we had lots of additional support and lots of community donations,” McKenzie says. “That’s cut back and that’s pretty typical. If we look back in our database at the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 attacks … there is that outpouring help when something bad happens. We were thankful for that during the pandemic because we certainly needed it. We had an increased level of need all around.”

When the pandemic ended, though, people still needed help finding food for themselves and their families. A few opportunities to give are on the horizon.

Summer gardens are bearing fruit now.

Samantha McKenzie, center, says support from the United Way of Bay County is central to Hidden Harvest fulfilling its mission. McKenzie is the President & CEO of Hidden Harvest. (Photo courtesy of Hidden Harvest)“We’re got people who call us and ask about a dozen boxes of apples they picked from their trees,” McKenzie says. “If it’s not a larger amount, we won’t pick it up, but we can point you to a location to drop it off. It’s definitely harvest time right now, so we’re very excited about all the wonderful fresh produce we’re seeing.”

Hidden Harvest also takes prepared food from commercial kitchens.

“If you have an event that wasn’t as well attended as planned and the food is still in the security of the kitchen, we will happily come and scoop that up,” she says.

Like most nonprofits, Hidden Harvest needs volunteers.

“When one of our Bay County drivers was injured this past year, we did a whole signup schedule for people to drive along with her.  She could do 90% of her job, she just couldn’t lift as much. We found people to help.”

Spending time in the delivery trucks is a great way to find your passion, McKenzie adds.

“It works really well for an individual to get the full experience of what we do,” she says. “The volunteers who run the food pantries have just the biggest hearts in the whole world. We’re really fortunate that we get to build those relationships.

Throughout the year, the United Way spreads the word about need in the community and gives donors a central location for monetary donations.

Hidden Harvest was highlighted during the United Way’s Longest Table event on Wed., Sept. 13. “We’re going to volunteer to serve the food. And we love food, so them having a party about food is just fantastic,” McKenzie says.

“The United Way does so much for the community,” McKenzie says. “We don’t have the capacity on our staff to put out all the messages to the community. Also, it’s a really easy thing to do to make that donation through the United Way. We’re really thankful for that.”
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com