Emergency food providers feel the crunch of rising costs amid inflationNonprofit Journal Project: Feature

As spring approaches and inflation continues to impact the cost of food and other necessities, emergency food providers are seeing an uptick in need in communities across Southeast Michigan – even as their operating costs rise.

“The prolonged crisis of inflation doesn’t discriminate between city or county boundaries and is permeating every part of our service area. We’re seeing increases in need across our region, in urban and rural areas, across age groups and reaching into what were stable households,” says Kristin Sokul, director of advancement strategy and planning at Gleaners Community Food Bank, which serves a network of over 500 emergency food providers in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties.

The reasons behind those increases are nuanced – factors ranging from rising grocery costs to rent increases, layoffs, high healthcare costs, lost public assistance benefits and more could be to blame.

But as more Michiganders turn to food banks and pantries for help, nonprofits like Gleaners are being faced with the daunting task of continuing to meet those growing levels of need amid reduced donations and an increasingly challenging economy.

Government support dwindles as need – and costs – rise

In Michigan, over 1.4 million individuals and 749,757 households participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which supplements the food budget of needy individuals and families in the U.S., were impacted by the expiration of additional pandemic-related SNAP allotments in February, according to agency data as of Dec. 2022.

Depending on income levels and eligibility, SNAP participants lost a minimum of $95 in extra benefits in March, with some losing access to several hundred dollars in monthly nutrition assistance, according to examples on the state’s Food Assistance Program website.

At the same time, the cost of food-at-home increased 9.5% nationally in February compared to the same time last year, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March Consumer Price Index – a convergence that could lead to a greater need for food assistance in the coming months.

“Whenever a household loses resources they rely on and have built a budget around, the need for that resource doesn’t go away. It means they must make tough tradeoffs, seek more support from family or friends if it’s available, or bring that increased need to the emergency food network. It’s difficult to predict the level of increase in households coming to us with the end of expanded SNAP, but we do expect to see the need for support from Gleaners and our partner network to go up as households face renewed crisis,” Sokul says.

Recently, Sokul says Gleaners’ network has seen “significant increases” in the number of first-time seniors, families and individuals visiting its emergency food network, with record numbers of visitors to its Fresh Market Pantry distributions at the Mercado Food Hub in Southwest Detroit and the Shared Harvest Pantry in Livingston County. The nonprofit’s mobile pantries also saw a 40% distribution increase in January 2023 compared to the same time last year.
Despite that growing demand, donations have been down in recent months – both from the public and government.

Government-donated food had already been significantly decreasing into last fall, and it reached historically low levels in January and February 2023, even as community needs have continued to increase. That means that Gleaners has had to purchase significantly more food to help bridge the gap, while food costs and supply chain issues have made those purchases even more challenging,” Sokul says.

To overcome those obstacles, Gleaners has increased its fundraising capacity while evaluating opportunities with new and existing partners and consistently monitoring food distributions to maintain support in under-served communities.

“[Gleaners] is healthy, but community support will continue to be important to our ability to serve our neighbors in need with the food and programs that bring household stability and opportunity to thrive,” Sokul says.

Expanding distributions to meet growing demand

Like Gleaners, Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue organization that distributes around 144,000 pounds of surplus food per day to local charities across Metro Detroit, has also seen an uptick in demand for food assistance in recent months.

According to CEO Adrian Lewis, the organization has seen a 17% to 23% increase in the number of individuals served per month over the last six months. In February, the organization served 135,783 individuals and 54,984 households, compared to 94,029 individuals and 43,278 households during the same month last year.

“With all these rising costs – of housing, food and gas, continuing health and economic effects stemming from the pandemic – all of this has increased food insecurity for many of our tri-county residents,” Lewis says.

To continue meeting that growing need, the nonprofit opened two new distribution sites last month at Southeast Detroit High school, which was partially sponsored by the DTE Foundation, and at La Casa Amiga Charities in Pontiac.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re distributing not just food, but a nutritious, equitable balance,” Lewis says – something that has become more challenging as the amount of rescued food available to the nonprofit has “flatlined” recently, in part due to reduced USDA food distributions and grocery partners reducing the overabundance of excess food and seasonal produce in their purchasing systems.

Despite those challenges, Forgotten Harvest has remained committed to providing a healthy mix of food to those in need by expanding its food rescue partner network while returning to farming on all 92 acres of Forgotten Harvest Farms this year – a shift from last year’s crop reduction due to supply chain and inflation challenges.

‘When the economy gets sick, nonprofits get the flu’

Beyond Metro Detroit, nonprofits in Oakland, Washtenaw and St. Clair counties have also seen an uptick in the number of people seeking emergency food assistance recently – despite facing challenges of their own.

“I was taught by one of my mentors, a long time ago, a saying: ‘When the economy gets sick, nonprofits get the flu,’” says Russell Estill, Director of Food Programs at Lighthouse, a nonprofit that works to alleviate poverty in Oakland County.

According to Estill, the number of individuals served by Lighthouse increased by roughly 860 people between January and February – an upward trend Estill says he expects to continue because of inflation, layoffs in various industries, expiring pandemic-related benefits and more.

To meet those increasing needs, the organization moved from its former warehouse in Waterford to a new location in Pontiac in May 2022, which it leases from Gleaners for “significantly less” – a partnership that enabled Lighthouse to operate more efficiently amid inflation. A grant from Oakland County in 2022 also helped support the nonprofit during a difficult time.

“A year ago, when I came in [as director], we hadn’t received the grant, and we were struggling in terms of what we could purchase,” Estill says.

Grants help fill in gaps – but also create challenges

In St. Clair County, staff at Mid-City Nutrition, a Port Huron-based soup kitchen that served 65,000 meals last year to an estimated 1,500 individuals, also benefitted from a recent grant from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, which enabled it to restock its diminished backup pantry with staples necessary for preparing hot meals.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been working our way through our excess. … We started to get worried just within the last few months or so,” says Executive Director Sarah Jones, noting that dinner service has increased over the last six months from 70 or 80 people per night to around 130 in the last several weeks.

Due to increasing demand, Mid-City Nutrition currently offers food on a carryout basis (a practice adopted during the pandemic) since its 1,000 square foot space in the basement of St. Martin Lutheran Church isn't large enough to accommodate everyone. The organization is moving to a new 7,200 square foot building within the next several months, with a space large enough to accommodate in-person dining as well as commercial kitchens to prepare meals and teach.

At Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, which provides a specialty food pantry and other services for those in need, grants also play an important role in the nonprofit’s funding strategy – though recent trends in grantmaking favoring “innovation” have made acquiring funding for everyday operations more challenging.

“We keep it going day by day, but it does keep me up at night that safety net funding for human services organizations is very unreliable right now,” says Chief Program Officer Sarah Schneider Hong, noting that the nonprofit recently began purchasing halal meats from a new supplier in Dearborn, with kosher meats purchased in Oakland County, to control costs.

At JFS, demand has increased noticeably since the pandemic, with volunteer shifts increasing from four to 60 and staff increasing from one part-time to two full-time and two part-time employees. Between April 2022 and March 2023, the food pantry served 7,289 households, similar to the 7,361 it served between April 2020 and April 2021 but nearly double the 2,284 it served during the same period in 2019 – a trend the organization expects to continue.

“We’re definitely going to see an uptick in folks, because COVID happened and is happening, and those ripple effects are still going – the effects are still being felt. Yet a lot of the funding that came along with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has ended,” says Chrissy Taylor, senior director of community assistance.

Funding, policy may offer more stable solutions

Despite the challenges nonprofits currently face, public policies at the state and federal levels could provide the support necessary for meeting increasing demand for food assistance amid inflation.

Recently, additional support for emergency food providers was announced at the federal level in the form of increased food funding, grants, cooperative agreements and continued “bonus buys” through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to a representative at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Midwest Region, the first round of deliveries of the nearly $1 billion funded by USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation for 2023 began in February, with food arriving in states between mid-February and early March. 

A representative from the Michigan Department of Education, which oversees The Emergency Food Assistance Program in Michigan, said MDE notified its TEFAP agency partners of the CCC offering of products in mid-December 2022 and in early March 2023, with deliveries scheduled throughout the year.

Some of that food has already made its way to Southeast Michigan. According to Sokul, Gleaners received 181,000 pounds of food in March under CCC programming; the nonprofit’s operations team expects that at least half of its anticipated USDA pounds received will come from CCC for the next several months. Christopher Ivey, Director of Marketing and Communications at Forgotten Harvest, confirmed the nonprofit has also received 310,000 lbs. to date through CCC since February.

The Farm Bill, a multiyear omnibus law that directs a range of agricultural and food programs and provides funding for key nutrition assistance programs in the U.S., is another important policy solution for emergency food providers – especially if food costs continue to trend upward.

“With Farm Bill negotiations taking place right now, benefits adequacy must be a priority. At a minimum, Congress should protect the recent update to the Thrifty Food Plan that provided a modest but meaningful increase that brought SNAP benefit levels more in line with the cost of a healthy diet today,” says Anna Almanza, director of policy and SNAP outreach at the Food Bank Council of Michigan, an advocacy organization that works to improve food security in the state.

At the state level, Almanza says there are also policy solutions that could help emergency food providers during this time. Recently, the Food Bank Council of Michigan asked legislature for an increase to $20 million for the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System. If approved as part of the state’s fiscal year budget for 2024, the funding would allow food banks to purchase more fresh food items like milk, eggs and produce directly from Michigan farms – a goal that aligns with recommendations issued by the state’s Food Security Council last March.

“Our Michigan State Legislature can invest in supporting the Michigan food bank network in their ability to provide Michigan-grown and produced fresh food to communities and households across the state. Congress must prioritize food security during this critical time, and whether it’s budget negotiations or the Farm Bill, harmful changes or cuts to SNAP and other food assistance programs are unacceptable,” Almanza says.

To volunteer, donate, or access food from any of the nonprofits mentioned in this article, visit the organization’s website.

To find your local Congressperson and comment on the Farm Bill, visit https://www.congress.gov/members/find-your-member.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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