Battle Creek

How the South Michigan Food Bank is keeping up with exploding need for more food

Two weeks ago, Peter Vogel, CEO of the South Michigan Food Bank, was worried that the food bank he runs would not get the food it needed to keep up with the demand that has risen dramatically as schools have closed, seniors can no longer go to centers for meals, and those out of work can't afford to go to the grocery store.
Today (May 8, 2020), he expected to learn that his organization will be receiving more than 900,000 pounds of food through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The amount that Vogel asked for is part of a total of 4.7 million pounds of produce, 4.4 million pounds of protein, 3.9 million pounds of dairy products, and 3.9 million pounds of milk requested by Michigan’s seven regional food banks, including the South Michigan Food Bank, which operate under the Food Bank Council of Michigan (FBCM).

Phil Knight, Executive Director of the FBCM, says he expects the food to start being delivered to the state's seven regional food banks on May 15.

The allocation to South Michigan Food Bank will, in turn, be distributed to 285 partner agencies that serve an eight-county area including Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties, Vogel says. The food destined for southwest Michigan is part of $3 billion in food purchased by the USDA to support emergency food assistance programs throughout the United States.
During this challenging time, neighbors need help more than ever, says the South Michigan Food Bank.
Vogel calls it a gift that comes at a time of increasing demand and uncertainty. “This gift is invaluable because the volume we need to keep up with the demand is more than we’ve ever seen before,” he says.

On a normal week, the South Michigan Food Bank moves 152,000 pounds of food, according to Vogel. “Last week we moved 370,000 pounds and we’re on pace to do more than that this week. I’m very confident that last week was our largest single distribution of food in the 38 years that we’ve been in business.”

“Last year we increased the amount of food distributed by 19 percent over the year before. We moved 45 percent more food into our eight-county service area at the end of April than we did by end of April last year.”

The demand is being driven by three different waves of demographics, says Phil Knight, Executive Director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan. That first wave represented school students who qualified for free or reduced lunch who are now receiving Grab and Go meals at various sites throughout the state.

The second wave was made up of senior citizens, many of whom depended on senior centers or congregate meal sites which were closed as part of state-mandated orders. Knight says the Food Bank Council of Michigan designed senior quarantine boxes assembled in their warehouses. These are delivered to senior citizens and placed on their doorstep. Those boxes, containing 22 meals, cost an average of $28 each to prepare and are provided at no cost to those who need them.
Victory Life Church members volunteered at a recent drive-thru food pick-up at 5451 Wayne Road un Battle Creek.
Seniors in Calhoun County are among those receiving these boxes put together at the Gleaners Food Bank located in southeast Michigan.

Karla Fales, CEO of CareWell Services Southwest, says, “We received 166 boxes and 50 of those went to Barry County and the rest were split up between seven different groups.”

Organizations in Calhoun County which serve seniors also are continuing to deliver freshly-prepared meals through the Meals on Wheels program and offering curbside pickup for meals. Through the Community Action Agency, they have access to commodities boxes and are able to have someone else go to the store to get their groceries if they don't feel comfortable venturing out.

Knight says these first two waves represented the “most innocent” -- students -- and the “most vulnerable” -- senior citizens -- because of their increased susceptibility to contracting the coronavirus.

“The third wave came from people who have never needed to negotiate the emergency food network,” Knight says. This includes people in the service industry who have lost their jobs and those in the gig and contract sector.
FireKeepers Casino volunteers are among those helping to keep the community healthy and fed by wearing masks, gloves, and social-distancin as they packed food.
Collectively, these waves are among the reasons for the 40 percent statewide increase in food being distributed this year over last year, Knight says.

“The week before schools closed, we distributed about 440,000 pounds of food across the state. Last week we distributed 740,000,” he says, adding that he thinks these numbers will continue to escalate.

Securing sources to meet the demand

Vogel says his organization was able to anticipate the increased demand on the front end.

“When we realized that COVID-19 was going to be serious, we bought up everything we could buy up and rented refrigerated trailers, in addition to stuffing our warehouse,” Vogel says.

But, as the demand for food was increasing, Vogel says supply chains began “drying up.”

“Historically, 40 percent of the food we receive comes through federal programs and 30 percent comes through donations of excess food from grocery stores, and the other third, we purchase. The problem is that picking up that food from grocery stores has dried up because people are buying up what they have,” Vogel says. “Some of the distributors we purchased food from are letting us order, but telling us that the order may not be there for five or six more weeks.”

Grocery stores have seen an uptick in demand as the closure of restaurants has meant that more people are buying their own food and cooking at home. Knight says people started buying more food and then they got nervous and began over-buying which created the decrease in the amount of food that retailers could donate. 

“That’s why we say all the time, ‘buy what you need for your family’ because there’s no shortage in the supply chain,” Knight says.

Then word came on April 6 that vendors from which the Food Bank Council of Michigan purchases shelf-stable foods were going to cease operations because they no longer had access to large food chains.

“This sent a shock through our network,” Knight says.

Within nine days he and his team crafted a Memorandum of Understanding between the State Emergency Operations center and the Food Bank Council of Michigan. It's similar to agreements used in Florida and Texas, in which the state becomes the agency that procures food for emergency food networks over and above what it would use for normal operations.

“The state is fronting that money and purchasing food that is coming to food banks,” Knight says.

He anticipates that the Federal Emergency Management Administration will reimburse 75 percent of the cost with the state picking up the remaining 25 percent. Governor Whitmer already has asked FEMA to waive that 25 percent.

The collaboration between the State Emergency Operations Center and the Food Bank Council of Michigan grew into a partnership with Meijer stores, which stepped in to source the food products.

In late April, Meijer delivered $1.6 million in food products to the state’s seven regional food banks and another $2 million in food in early May.

Volunteers at the South Michigan Food Bank have been boxing up this food for distribution to partner agencies. Volunteer shifts, with limited numbers and strict adherence to CDC guidelines, are working three shifts daily to put together boxes containing 25 pounds of food designed to feed a family of four for one week.

“We decided our old model wasn’t going to work anymore,” Vogel says. “We can’t deliver food to our partner agencies and let people pick out what they want because of possible exposure to the virus.”

The result is the delivery of pre-boxed food for distribution.

And even though there has been a huge increase in demand, unlike the images captured almost daily of vehicles in line, sometimes for miles, at food distribution sites throughout the United States, the scene locally has been free of the chaotic circumstances being seen elsewhere. Locally,  those who find themselves in need of food from local distribution centers are respectful and showing their gratitude, Vogel says.

How CFAP allocations will look

With more than 3,000 food pantries throughout Michigan, Knight says the locations for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program food distribution could be anywhere that makes sense logistically and will likely be delivered in different ways.

In some areas of the state, trucks loaded with boxes containing the produce, protein, dairy products, and milk will roll up to a designated site and begin loading the items directly into trunks of vehicles. Knight says this truck to trunk concept appealed to the USDA.

Closer to home, Vogel says the food received by the South Michigan Food Bank will be distributed to his partner agencies to give out.

In addition to enabling the state’s food banks to meet increasing demand, Knight says Coronavirus Food Assistance Program also allows his organization to refocus the state’s Michigan Agricultural Surplus System allocation to provide locally farmed produce to consumers.

“Michigan’s farmers have unselfishly supported the Michigan Ag Surplus System since its inception 30 years ago through Farm Bureau’s Harvest for All program and its partnership with the Food Bank Council of Michigan,” says Carl Bednarski, president, Michigan Farm Bureau Family of Companies. “Now, with so many of our fellow Michiganders faced with uncertainty, I have no doubt that those of us producing the over 300 commodities in our state will continue to do what we can to help feed those in need.

“Michigan Farm Bureau is collaborating with commodity organizations and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to determine how our great agriculture products can be included in the food assistance program,” Bednarski says. “Our tremendous ag diversity will provide a great opportunity to supply healthy and nutritious food.”

The start of the growing season in Michigan will enable Vogel to procure fresh fruits and vegetables to meet increasing demand. He says farmers sometimes grow acres of food for the South Michigan Food Bank for cents on the dollar or at no cost.

“We’re kind of looking at a new normal to be substantially higher than the old normal was. Where we used to have little less than 10 million pounds of food distributed annually, the new normal will be 50 percent higher,” Vogel says. “I want the community to know that we are a community food bank and if they need us we are here for them.”


Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
Signup for Email Alerts