Imagine trying to feed your family a healthy diet when your main options are walking to a local dollar store, or taking public transportation to a grocery store and then hauling your groceries home on the bus. That's the situation facing many in Washtenaw County, particularly in Ypsilanti and Ypsi Township.
Many Ypsi-area agencies and nonprofits are spreading the word about growing food insecurity, and the choices low-income families must make between buying groceries and paying rent. But the problem is often less about lack of money for food and more about difficulties accessing healthy foods.
Getting the word out about healthy food resources
Even before the COVID-19 crisis introduced new uncertainty into the community, anecdotal evidence from a variety of providers around Ypsi and Ypsi Township suggest that use of food pantries and other free food resources is up.
At Hope Clinic, 518 Harriet St. in Ypsi, the number of area residents accessing free hot meals has more than doubled between January 2019 and January 2020. Emmeline Weinert, the clinic's food program manager, says that is in part because Hope has been serving people who formerly were getting food assistance through the Salvation Army, which consolidated its operations and recently shut down meal services in Ypsi.
Billy Kangas, the clinic's director of community engagement, adds that changes to federal rules about what government programs green card holders can access has driven "a substantial immigrant population" to access Hope's many services. Those include healthcare and food programs, particularly the clinic's weekly farm stand offerings of fresh produce.
Tracey Anderson, food pantry and volunteer coordinator for SOS Community Services, says usage of SOS' pantry typically dips in January and February. But the Ypsi-based nonprofit hasn't seen that decrease this year, with a steady stream of shoppers still using its pantry over the last two or three months.
Increased food insecurity or other problems?
However, Markell Miller, director of community food programs for Food Gatherers, says her understanding of recent data suggests these trends aren't necessarily because county residents are unable to afford food. She says it's difficult to separate those who are food insecure from those who are simply having trouble accessing healthy foods because of transportation issues or lack of a nearby grocery store.
Tedi Milgrom, health promotion coordinator for the Washtenaw County Health Department, says a 2016 Washtenaw Food Policy Council food access survey identified that two neighborhoods in the greater Ypsi area are especially lacking in nearby grocery stores. Those were the South Side of the city of Ypsi, near Parkridge Park; and the Ypsi Township neighborhood near the intersection of Leforge and Clark.
The survey further found that nearly a third of those surveyed didn't have their own car to drive to a grocery store outside their neighborhood.
"Our estimates of food insecurity in our county haven't really changed from last year," Miller says. She thinks increased usage of food pantries and free hot meal programs is more likely due to increased outreach and promotion, and that's a good thing. "It's great to know that when people experience food insecurity, they know where to go," she says.
Demand is also up for healthier options and more meat and dairy, items that weren't typically available at food pantries just 15 or 20 years ago.
Milgrom says Food Gathers has "done a lot of great work over the past few years… with a healthy pantry conversion project."
"There's a national trend where pantries are switching from that older model of a food pantry stocked with pre-packaged shelf-stable food to more of a grocery store experience and being able to go shopping for a high amount of fresh produce, similar to a grocery store," she says.
Many healthcare providers are realizing that food insecurity is a factor in overall health outcomes, and many have established free food programs of their own.
"Over the years, we've been working more with healthcare providers to help them connect patients who are struggling to get enough food connected to pantries more, as well as decrease the stigma and increase the visibility of these resources," Miller says.
Ypsi healthcare providers that offer free food programs include Hope Clinic and the Corner Health Center, serving young people ages 12 to 25. Corner Health has offered a food pantry for years, but added a freezer and refrigerator last summer so it could offer additional options, including dairy and meats.
"Just because somebody needs a little extra help filling their own pantry doesn't mean they want to eat beans and rice all the time. They want a variety of foods in their lives," says Corner Health development associate Ava Ohlgren.
Some resources still under-utilized
Despite the fact that word is getting out and more area residents are using Ypsi-area food programs, Miller says there are a few under-utillized resources.
She says many people don't know that Food Gatherers partners with Ypsilanti Community Schools to run a Healthy School Pantry program at all elementary schools and Ypsilanti Community High School. Each site has slightly different offerings and hours, but most offer fresh produce at least monthly.
"It makes it easier for the family to get a little extra help because they're already going to the school, picking up or dropping off their children. It's a friendly and non-stigmatizing place … to get fresh fruits and vegetables," Miller says.
Feeding children in the summer when free school lunches aren't available also creates a gap in the safety net, and summer food programs filling that gap are currently under-utilized.
"We did have a pretty big increase in meals served last summer and added a couple new big sites, but we're not reaching all the kids who could benefit from that project," Miller says.
Milgrom notes that the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority also offers a program called Grocery Ride, targeting those who live in senior housing facilities. In Ypsi the program operates at Chidester Place Apartments, taking seniors directly to a supermarket once a week for 75 cents each way.
"Seniors tend to have less access to transportation as they get older, and the program makes that easier, rather than having to navigate using a regular bus," Milgrom says.
Additionally, the health department offers a free healthy food distribution from 2-3:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month in the Washtenaw County Human Services Building atrium at 555 Towner St. in Ypsi. The distribution includes fruits, vegetables, dairy, and bread. No proof of income is required.
Miller encouraged any Ypsi-area resident experiencing food insecurity or trouble accessing healthy food to look at the list of resources on the Food Gatherers website.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.