Voices of Youth: Fueled by volunteers, Food Gatherers has been fighting local hunger for 35 years

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student writer Lily Broglio looks into how the Ann Arbor nonprofit Food Gatherers is working to reduce local food insecurity.

When people think of someone struggling with food insecurity, they may picture someone who barely has enough money to put a roof over their head, let alone feed and clothe their self properly. However, this isn’t always the case. There are many circumstances that can cause someone to become food insecure, and there are plenty of people who may just not have enough money to make it through the week and need some extra help to keep them going.

A recent cause for food insecurity that is still making an impact locally has been the COVID-19 pandemic, says Eileen Spring, CEO of Food Gatherers. Spring has been with Food Gatherers for nearly 30 years. She says that, due to COVID-19, there are more people in need of assistance than ever. 

“So many people suddenly became food insecure, and it wasn’t based on their income. It was because they couldn’t leave their homes," Spring says. "It was just a very bizarre situation, and at Food Gatherers we lost most of our labor force, because we rely on volunteers. So when demand went up, we just lost a lot of our physical labor, as well as our food supply. We are still very much coming back from that.”

Eileen Spring.
Food Gatherers was founded in 1988 as the first official food rescue program in the state of Michigan and the sixth in the United States. Since then, it has grown to become the official food bank and food rescue program for Washtenaw County. It was originally started by Zingerman’s Delicatessen to help feed residents in need and reduce food waste from local restaurants and grocery stores. Today, Food Gatherers provides nearly 17,000 meals every day to people in need, with 57,900 summer meals going to children each year.

Although there may have been a lull in volunteers due to the pandemic, the community has responded greatly. When you visit the Food Gatherers website, the next available volunteer time with more than one slot open is nearly a month and a half away.

Amy Diehl has been with Food Gatherers for 16 years, 10 of which were spent volunteering in the nonprofit's kitchen. She now works in Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen at the Delonis Center, 312 W. Huron St. in Ann Arbor.

“I really enjoy working with volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life," Diehl says. "I am always impressed by our volunteer cooks who make delicious and nutritious meals from the ingredients we have available, and they do it in only two hours!”

One challenge she faces daily is not knowing how many volunteers will come in on a given day or what their skill set will be.

"However, the volunteers always enter with a great attitude and are very willing to learn," Diehl says.

Scott Roubeck, a coworker of Diehl’s at the Delonis Center, had a somewhat similar experience.

“I began volunteering at Food Gatherers in 2006 and had such a great experience, I sent in my resume,” he says. “I have always been involved in feeding people who are food insecure since I was put in charge of the canned goods drive in second grade.”

Like Diehl, Roubeck, and many other Food Gatherers employees, Spring started as a volunteer herself, back in the early '90s. Over the past 30 years, she worked her way up from that volunteer position to CEO.

“I enjoy making a difference in people’s lives, and we do every day," Spring says. "The most challenging aspect is Food Gatherers can’t solve hunger alone. Hunger is a symptom of poverty, and poverty persists in this community and in this country. And so it’s frustrating that we haven’t made bigger strides.”

For example, Spring cites the lack of affordable housing and increased homelessness in Ann Arbor.

“The cost of living in Washtenaw Country is one of the highest in the state,” Spring says. “Affordable housing is unattainable to most people, and that was true 20 years ago, and it’s even more true today.”

There are many different types of volunteer work with Food Gatherers. The most common is assisting to serve meals at the Delonis Center. You can also sign up to help cook and prepare food for those who will be serving after you. Volunteers at the Delonis Center must be at least 14 years old.

There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities at the Food Gatherers warehouse, located at 1 Carrot Way in Ann Arbor. This is a good opportunity for family work as well, since you only have to be 8 years old to help sort food, as long as you’re accompanied by an adult.

“We rely on private support as individuals, and particularly right now because there’s much less government support in terms of food assistance," Spring says. “We rescue a lot of food from grocery stores, et cetera, but that’s only about 50% of what we distribute throughout the year, so the rest either comes through government programs, which have been diminished, or through purchasing programs. We’re purchasing more food because we’re trying to give out healthy food that’s also culturally appropriate and meaningful to people.”

Roubeck also notes, “In addition to volunteering, financial support and advocacy are great ways people can help Food Gatherers meet the challenges of providing healthy nutritious food to our neighbors in need.”

If you’d like to donate your time to a worthy cause that’s been improving our community for decades, visit the official Food Gatherers website for more information.

Lily Broglio will be a ninth grader at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor this fall. This is the first news article she's written.

Concentrate staffer Eric Gallippo served as Lily's mentor on this project.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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