This story is the final installment in a three-part series on how COVID-19 has activated and strengthened non-traditional, grassroots networks of community support in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. Read the first story in the series here and the second here.
When Peace House Ypsilanti began offering a food pantry on its front porch at 706 Davis St. to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, something surprising happened: a few people who used the pantry also brought food to donate, and others in the neighborhood set up pantries in their own yards.
"They've been inspired by what Peace House is doing, and decide, 'We're going to do that too,'" says Peace House volunteer Sheri Wander. "It sucks to feel like you're always on the receiving end. Self-esteem takes a hit if you feel you are 'always getting charity.' People want to be able to give back, and the mutual aid approach opens up an avenue for people to do that."
Peace House is just one of many Washtenaw County organizations that have innovated in responding to the sharp increase in food insecurity that the pandemic has caused. Many grassroots efforts have been launched, and established nonprofits have added more food resources to make sure county residents don't go hungry.
Eileen Spring, executive director of the Washtenaw County nonprofit Food Gatherers, says Food Gatherers' partner pantry programs across the county have seen anywhere from a 30% to 300% increase in use, with about 40% being first-time users who never needed food assistance before.
"People are continuing to rely on getting free food, and that makes sense because food is a lot more accessible than cash assistance to ward off eviction," Spring says. "If people get some of their burden for food alleviated, they can direct limited resources to other things like rent or utilities or medical payments."
Peace House: Hospitality and advocacy
Peace House is located in a working-class neighborhood, and Wander says many residents "are living on the edge." Peace House's front-porch pantry is heavy on items like beef jerky, power bars, ramen, instant mac and cheese, packages of nuts or crackers, and other items that can be cooked in a microwave or don't need to be cooked. Wander says that will probably continue even when the pandemic is over.
Peace House volunteers noticed that as neighborhood kids were walking home, they would ask if they could grab a snack or Gatorade from the pantry to take with them.
"To me, that is an unanticipated and exciting thing that has happened because it helps us get to know the neighbors," Wander says. "For people who are food insecure or housing insecure, community is super important to help each other keep their heads above the water. It's a challenge to build community when we're supposed to keep distant from one another, and it's nice that the neighborhood kids gave us an avenue for doing that."
Wander notes that Peace House follows the Catholic Worker movement's values, with a dual focus on "providing hospitality in your community but also calling out structures that have failed and why."
"As a nation, if we were not spending so much on the military or corporate welfare, those resources would be available to people," Wander says.
We the People Opportunity Farm: Distributing fresh produce
When the pandemic started, Melvin Parson, founder of Ypsilanti Township-based We the People Opportunity Farm (WTPOF), knew that his nonprofit's business model had to change. Previously, the farm had been selling much of its produce to local restaurants, but this year most of the farm's produce has gone to neighbors in need.
The pivot was made easier by a pre-existing relationship with Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, which allows WTPOF to use a portion of its land for farming. Grace Fellowship has been offering a food pantry or other types of food assistance for about 10 years, and began offering curbside service over the summer.
"They already have this population of people they serve, and by our farm being 50 yards away, it was an easy shift for us to start distributing our produce right there at the curbside alongside of them," Parson says.
WTPOF staff passed out produce over eight Saturdays this summer. On Saturdays with smaller turnout, they handed out about 150 pounds of produce, and close to 300 pounds on weekends with a higher turnout.
2020 was Marly Spieser-Schneider's first year serving as WTPOF farm manager. She says that although it's been a "less than normal season," responding to the pandemic "got to the heart of why I'm involved in farming at all."
"There are disparities and a million injustices in our world, but food is a unifier, something everybody needs and that can bring so much joy," she says. "Having a chance to share fresh food without an exchange of money feels like what food should be. It meant a lot to me to be able to do that during a time when there's a heightened need."
Buenos Vecinos: Addressing "gargantuan" inequality
Buenos Vecinos, a nonprofit focused on Latinx health in Washtenaw County, has responded to food needs among the local Latinx population by starting a WhatsApp group for families who have requested assistance. Anyone can post updates about where food distributions are happening.
Buenos Vecinos co-founder Charo Ledon says typical posts might include the location of a food giveaway, or an ordinary citizen announcing she has food available for anyone who wants to drop by her front yard at a certain time.
Ledon says one of the bright spots in local COVID-19 response is that there is "lots of food being given away, lots of places, through schools and food banks."
"Now, having said that, if you don't have money to put gas in your car or don't have a driver's license to drive legally, you may limit yourself to going to wherever they're giving away food that you can walk to," she says. "Or, if you're a single mom, you are going to have to schlep the kids whether you're driving, walking, or getting a ride from a friend."
Ledon says the "level of inequality is gargantuan" in Washtenaw County. She says people who are working from home and can order food for delivery are "way more protected" than someone who might have to catch a ride with a friend or neighbor to go to a food pantry or other food giveaway event.
Ledon expects local Latinx residents' struggles to intensify, as many seasonal jobs available to undocumented citizens are about to wrap up for 2020.
"These people don't qualify for unemployment, food [benefits], or stimulus checks," she says. "They have none of these Band-aids the rest of us have. Even if they have a work permit and a Social Security number and are 'almost documented,' they can't apply for federal assistance like food stamps. That constitutes a 'public charge' and will impede their progress on the immigration road toward residency and citizenship."
The road ahead
Those who are addressing local food needs during the pandemic recognize that their work is far from over. Sheri Montoye is executive director of the nonprofit Faith in Action (FIA), which has offered a food pantry at both its Chelsea and Dexter locations for years. One of the bright spots Montoye has noted is that from schools to churches, "people have really stepped up across the county."
"Everybody clicked and worked together, from the Chelsea and Dexter schools to the hospital to make everyone aware of what's going on so we were able to respond," she says. "FIA board members and the board of directors from the two school districts made sure it was a seamless pivot so we could make sure gaps were filled."
Peace House's plans for continuing to fill those gaps go beyond addressing food needs. Wander says the organization's advocacy work is focusing on urging county government to continue using hotel space to shelter those who are housing insecure.
"It's important to do both, providing hospitality and reaching out and confronting systems that create such inequality to begin with," Wander says.
Parson says diverting most of WTPOF's produce to charitable efforts is likely to be a permanent part of the nonprofit's model going forward. The organization recently signed a multi-year lease with Grace Fellowship to provide some consistency and stability for the nonprofit over the next few years.
"This gives us time to plan and work for our future and build infrastructure there, instead of doing things year to year on the fly," Parson says.
Spring says everyone in the county needs to keep in mind that addressing food insecurity is "a marathon, not a sprint."
"They need to recognize that this increase in food insecurity is going to be with us for months, if not years, ahead," she says. "We might get COVID under control, but the economic fallout will continue."
Those seeking food assistance can find a comprehensive guide to local programs and organizations on Food Gatherers' website.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.