Coronavirus forces Pontiac emergency food providers to get creative

Shelters, food pantries and other emergency food distributors in Oakland County are scrambling to continue to provide food and do it safely in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and Michigan’s stay-at-home mandates.

Jennifer Lucarelli, chair of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at Oakland University, says rules governing eligibility, limiting quantity and setting times for collection create a piecemeal approach for receiving food assistance.

For example, a recipient may need to plan trips to their local school to get breakfast and lunch for their children, pick up a box of mostly shelf-stable groceries at a food pantry and then head to a grocery store with cash and SNAP benefits for fresh foods. That goes against the advice of public health experts to limit buying groceries to once per week or every two weeks to minimize the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.

"We're creating a system where people have to go out to four, five, six, seven different places to get their food needs met, and it takes such a significant amount of time and energy” to coordinate everything," says Lucarelli, who also chairs the Healthy Pontiac, We Can! coalition.

“We’ve also got a big breakdown happening in communications channels, so we’re spending such a significant portion of our time and our energy on just food, which is really hard in this crisis when we’re all trying to just do our best to get through every single day and keep alive.”

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan this week awarded a $300,000 grant to Pontiac-based Lighthouse, the Pontiac Community Foundation, and Oakland University to centralize emergency food distribution to families in need. The grant is helping more than 30 service organizations coordinate food distribution at the Oakland Center at OU, where a mostly volunteer staff can deliver it to seniors, low-income residents, people without transportation and others with health complications that leave them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Pontiac, a city of 60,000 with a 34% poverty rate, has emerged as one of the hotspots of COVID-19 infections in Oakland County, with 373 confirmed cases and 20 deaths across its three ZIP codes as of the latest data from April 3.

Lighthouse, which distributes food and other goods and operates a shelter program, has already had two staff members test positive for coronavirus, which forced the agency to quarantine 20 other staffers who’d been in contact with them for 14 days, CEO Ryan Hertz says.

The social services agency has been depending on a new pilot program from Oakland County to put local restaurants to work providing meals for homeless shelters and other service agencies. Lighthouse has also shifted its shelter program, which it normally runs through a series of participating churches and synagogues, to housing clients in hotels and motels.

Hertz estimates Lighthouse will spend between $400,000 and $700,000, based on the assumption they’ll be hoteling clients for three months.

“We’re changing everything around and I’ve been really thrilled to say that things that I think early in the process appeared to be major hurdles or things we weren’t quite sure how would be revolved have been resolved through collaboration,” he says.

At the Baldwin Center in Pontiac, Executive Director Elizabeth Longley says they’ve had to cut all essential services to focus on providing meals. They’ve hired two people who were laid off from nearby restaurants to staff the kitchen, and lunch is now served three days a week, down from four, in a brown paper bag to take away instead of on a plate in the dining room. Meals include a sandwich, chips, a piece of fruit, a cookie and a bottle of water.

“The new normal is three times the work and not as much nutritional value as we would like, but this is what we can do,” Longley says.

Because many of the organization’s volunteers are in their 60s or older, Longley says they’ve asked them to stay home to avoid infection risk, even though many say they wanted to continue to help out. The rest of the volunteers are mostly high-school students.

“We’ve got new families that we’ve never seen before in the past week,” Longley says, noting many of them are laid-off service-sector workers.

Lucarelli says her peers at OU are modeling potential coronavirus transmissions based on the total number of interactions. So if an emergency food distributor has 600 clients passing through on any given day, that’s 3,000 if they return each day over five days.

Giving each of them a week’s worth of food reduces that number fivefold.

“What we’re trying to do is decrease those person-to-person interactions,” she says. “Because what we know from a public health perspective is that people are infected with the virus long before they’re showing symptoms.

“So the advice to stay home only if you’re feeling like you have a fever or a sore throat or a cough, it’s kind of too little, too late. We need to just assume that when you’re interacting with them, a certain percentage are already affected but don’t know it.”

Lucarelli offers four suggestions for emergency food distributors to mitigate risk, including combining food and supply resources across programs, such as providing food for adults alongside school-lunch programs; lifting restrictions on the quantity of food per interaction; and expanding eligibility when possible to adults. She also recommends services institute direct delivery to clients whenever possible.

To request assistance from the new Oakland University food distribution hub, or to sign up as a volunteer, visit or call Lighthouse at (248) 920-6000, and press 2.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.