The end of COVID-19 government benefits plus skyrocketing grocery costs
has created a one-two punch affecting families in the Ypsilanti area who were already on the margins, and local nonprofits are scrambling to keep up with increased need.
"We've definitely seen new clients coming in. With the end of the pandemic-era SNAP allotments plus inflation, it's put a lot of people in a tough spot," says Emmeline Weinert, food program manager for Hope Clinic
in Ypsilanti. "We just had a call a couple weeks ago with a woman trying to help her mother do budgeting. She told us if she could just reduce her grocery bill by $100 a month, it would help tremendously."
Emmeline Weinert, food program manager at Hope Clinic.
Hope Clinic staff suggested the mother start coming to the pantry monthly for staples, and to the clinic's farm stand weekly for produce.
"We're seeing lots of stories like that, of people trying to make it work," Weinert says.
Making it work
Families who receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had their benefits reduced to pre-pandemic levels this spring, while supply chain issues and inflation have doubled the cost of some staples, like eggs.
Barbara Cecil, development director at SOS Community Services
in Ypsilanti, says inflation in food costs is "under the radar but a significant problem" and people are trying new strategies to save money. That is driving increased need for food pantries, hot food offerings, and other food assistance programs in Ypsilanti.
Barbara Cecil, development director at SOS Community Services.
"If folks take as much food for free as they can, they can save that income for all their other necessities, and it can help them continue to hold on," Cecil says.
One measure of increased food insecurity is attendance at Hope Clinic's hot meal program, which is offered six nights a week. In January, the average attendance was 44 people per night at hot meals. As of May, these dinners were averaging 59 attendees.
"People are a little panicked about their budget, because things are more expensive at checkout," Weinert says. "The hot meal program is such a great lifeline for the community. If you're out of money for the month, you have somewhere to go."
However, Weinert notes that the clinic might not be able to meet increased need indefinitely.
"Right now, more people are calling for food appointments, and we're having to schedule people farther out because you're shopping by appointment," Weinert says. "So far, we can still send everyone home with six bags of groceries, but further out, I don't know."
Cecil says utilization of SOS' food programs surged at the beginning of the pandemic, with demand rising from about 150 people a week to about 200. In March this year, when food costs began to rise rapidly and SNAP benefits were reduced, that number went up to about 230 families per week.
Studying while hungry
Andrea Kelly, a grad assistant in charge of Swoop's Food Pantry
on Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) campus, says she's only been there a year but has already seen an increased need.
EMU student Ruth Mella works at Swoop's Food Pantry.
She says student budgets are often a balancing act between paying for tuition, rent, or food, and students may only be able to work part-time. She's been hearing from shoppers that their budget challenges are increasing with rising food costs. As of April 2023, Swoop's served nearly three times as many students as in April 2022.
Kelly worked at the food pantry at Michigan State University during her undergraduate studies. She's now working on a higher degree in counseling psychology at EMU.
Swoop's Food Pantry at Eastern Michigan University.
"My career goal is to do mental health work with students, and I think that's related to the food insecurity problem on college campuses
," she says. "If you don't have access to things you need, it's difficult to be successful in school. How healthy will your mental and emotional processes be if you're not getting your basic needs met?"
Swoop's will be better able to serve students thanks to a $130,000 gift from alumni group GameAbove
to expand and renovate
the pantry. The pantry has been located in Pierce Hall since it opened in 2015 but it has moved through several different spaces on the first or second floors over the years.
"GameAbove's big donation allowed us to renovate a bigger space on the first floor. It looks nice, and it's more accessible," Kelly says.
Summertime and the need is high
Food pantry clients aren't the only ones facing the effects of inflation.
"We've also got a challenge with donations going down," Weinert says. "If you're feeling [the effects of inflation], you're less likely to put extra items in your cart for your local food pantry."
And, if that wasn't enough of a challenge, even the most faithful of volunteers often goes on vacation during the summer, meaning need is high and volunteer head counts are low.
"This is a great time to donate food," Cecil says. "But for folks who can't afford to do that, it's also a great time to volunteer at a food pantry."
More information about volunteering at Hope Clinic can be found here
, and donation information can be found here
. Find more about SOS Community Services here
. And you can donate or find out more about Swoop's Food Pantry 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.