From Donor to Client

The front door opened and a woman walked slowly into our office.  Her soft gray hair swept over her forehead and was secured with a little barrette.

“Good Afternoon,” she said, and then introduced herself.

Her name was immediately familiar, as the woman I had recently mailed a stack of donation envelopes to.  I love putting a face to a name and was really glad that she stopped in.  “How can I help you?” I asked.

The woman gently extended her arm and handed me the stack of envelopes.  “You mailed these to me recently.  I have donated to the food bank for years,” she said.

“I know you have.  Thank you so much for your support,” I told her.

“Well,” she went on, “I’ve lost my pension.  I wish I could still help you, but I can’t.”  Her conversation was not rushed.  She seemed both deliberate and confused at the same time.  “I thought you might need these envelopes.  Maybe someone else can use them,” she told me.

I told her how sorry I was to hear that she no longer had the financial security she was accustomed to.  I thanked her for bringing the envelopes in, thanked her for introducing herself to me and thanked her for years of support.   I asked if she wanted to sit down with me.

“The truth is,” she looked briefly over a shoulder, “I might need help.  Do you know where I am able to get food?”


After taking a position at the Food Bank Council of Michigan in Resource Development, I began acquainting myself with the donation records.  At first, the records felt like an ocean of names that would take years to develop a relationship with.

Over a short period of time, this collection of donor names became less mysterious.  Our Executive Director and I made phone calls, sent personalized letters and thank you notes.  Donors started becoming familiar.  I quickly learned that our donor’s support for hunger relief work is as genuine as our gratitude for their support.

In a donor database, there is always a little section to make notes if there is something that needs to be documented, such as Spoke to Donor in February, 2013 or Donor wishes to remain anonymous.  In this section, I had come across a note that read, Send this donor a stack of donation envelopes at the beginning of each year.  I made a note and did so around the first week of January.  It was about two weeks later that this lovely woman walked into our office.


This story is not an isolated event.  My colleagues in the food bank network can all speak of an instance when a donor became a client.  Seniors are particularly vulnerable to hunger for just such a reason.  If anything happens to reduce or remove their access to finances or food assistance, they are at the mercy of the emergency food response.

For all of her years of service to those who were less fortunate, we hope that someone else will step forward to make sure that this former donor will have food in times of emergency.

It doesn’t seem fair.  Hunger isn’t fair.  Hunger doesn’t care what you did with your life or how good of a person you are.  Circumstances shift and everything can change in an instant.  Investing in a community support system is a positive thing.  There are good people all over Michigan that are grateful for the meal.

 

 

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Springtime: Cultivating our Produce Programs

Although it doesn’t feel like it now, we know that spring is right around the corner.  We will wake up one day and the sun will have melted most of the snow, leaving only steadfast patches of ice hanging on for the last of the winter season.  The ground will be soggy and we’ll hear birds in the morning again.  To people involved in helping to feed Michigan, this day will inspire the plotting, planning and tilling of land.

Those little birds will surely be chirping around Michigan food banks.   Spring is the season to roll out our produce programs!  Many of the food banks have close relationships to local farmers that supply them with thousands of pounds of purchased and donated produce.  A handful of food banks have taken to farming themselves, planting and harvesting for the good of their community.  Michigan food banks also support community gardening initiatives, helping to teach folks to grow their own food in urban and suburban areas.

front of warehouse

Gleaners Community Food Bank

Let’s take a minute and salute the Michigan farmer.  Collectively, Michigan farmers produce over 300 commodity foods commercially.  According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, our state ranks second to California for agricultural diversity.  We rank first in the nation for the production of many beans and produce, including black beans, cranberry beans, blueberries, pickling cucumbers and tart cherries.  That is pretty remarkable.

farmer

In the summer months, our staff visits many Michigan farmers to learn more about their operations and develop partnerships for feeding the hungry.  Each family has been wonderful and welcoming.  Although the farms we’ve visited have been unique in character and operation, we have found one commonality among Michigan farmers:  they really care about what they do.  Their commitment to farming and feeding people is not taken lightly.  It is not a nine- to- five job, it is a lifestyle.

Peter and Paul Blake with Kareemah El-Amin of FBCM

Peter and Paul Blake of Blake Farms with Kareemah El-Amin of Food Bank Council of Michigan

The Food Bank Council of Michigan helps to support food banks in our state by coordinating a couple different agricultural programs.  One program contracts with local farmers ahead of the growing season to plant specifically for food banks.  Another program rescues produce that would normally go to waste because although fresh, healthy and undamaged, the produce does not meet retailer specifications.  All across our state, organizations are busy taking advantage of our rich agricultural resources in order to reduce hunger for our residents.

When picturing this abundant landscape of fresh produce, it is hard to imagine people suffering hunger in the summer.    Summer is actually one of the hardest times of year for children.  742,451 children in Michigan qualify for free and reduced lunches at school, which is about 48% of all our kids.  During the summer, these young ones are not able to rely on food that they receive in school.   Families who are already struggling to afford groceries are stretching their budgets even thinner to buy food for their children in summer months.

Stay tuned to learn how you can take action to reduce childhood hunger in the summertime.

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The Line

Last year at about this time, the staff from the Food Bank Council of Michigan joined a team from Forgotten Harvest at an emergency food distribution site in Detroit.

When we pulled up to the site in our car, we were met with a feeling of controlled chaos.  There were two men standing at the end of a long drive wearing orange vests and directing traffic.  These men took their volunteer position very seriously.  They were making sure that people followed an order.

Order allowed the line to form, the line led to food. 

The air had a buzz of stress, both in hurried and calm forms.  People formed a long line out from the entrance, the traffic coordinator barking over the din like the captain of a ship.  I heard the sounds of plastic carts, metal carts, stuck wheels and canvas bags dragging along the pavement’s icy mounds and potholes craters.  Folks used whatever they could to load food into.  The bigger the better.   People called to one another in friendly and non-friendly ways.  These folks faced hunger and their place in line either meant that they’d receive food, or they wouldn’t.

We were escorted in to meet the woman directing the operation.  She explained to us the details of how her pantry worked.  As she did, people in line who passed by her would give her hugs and say “God Bless You”.

She told us that about 700 families would come to the line that day.  300 or so families would be turned away after the food ran out. 

This coordinator was retired from her career, and did whatever she could in her own time to feed people in her community.  Her operation continually outgrew locations and its resources.  She had a whole network of volunteers that helped by loading bags, passing out goods, transporting food, directing traffic and cleaning the area, among other things.

“You wouldn’t be able to pick them out,” she said “but a handful of my devoted volunteers are homeless.”

A Forgotten Harvest truck was parked at the loading dock and pallets of food were being unloaded.  The driver was commended for getting the truck backed into a tight loading dock.  He joined our conversation and invited us to do a ride along with him sometime, as he made his rounds delivering food to sites around the city.

All of the volunteers involved in feeding these families were absolutely integral to the success of the endeavor.  Each had their role, their contribution.  I stood there shivering like everyone else, overwhelmed by the gravity of the setting.

What a deeply moving view of humanity.  The spirit of Detroit was alive in this neighborhood.

Despite the best efforts of many, hungry families would be turned away for lack of food.  Michigan food banks are in place to provide emergency assistance to folks in need of food.  Month after month, the food banks struggle to meet this need.  Each food bank responds to the unique needs of their counties as best they can, hoping to close the gap on hunger.

What is the answer for the people waiting in line?  The jobs and the grocery stores moved out of their neighborhoods over thirty years ago.  Most of the folks in line appeared to be elderly, many were disabled.  What are these folks to do?  

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What is a food bank?

What is a Food Bank?  Well, what is a bank?  A bank can refer to a reserve, a special place for holding and storing.  That makes sense.  Have you ever seen a food bank?  A food bank definitely holds and stores goods.  They are enormous warehouses, stacked to the ceiling with purchased and donated items.  They are colder in the winter and warmer in the summer, the concrete floor reflecting the season.

Let’s clear up any confusion about what a food bank is:  Michigan has seven food banks state-wide (huge, extensive warehouse and offices) and over 3,000 food pantries (smaller, storage and service agencies in the community).  If it operates out of your local church, it is a pantry.  If it takes up nearly an acre and has a constant stream of semi trucks being loaded and unloaded, it is a food bank.  Both are vital to feeding the community.  They are a symbiotic masterpiece of care and efficiency.

Food pantry

Food pantry

Food bank

Food banks distribute millions of pounds of food each year throughout their regional network of pantries, churches, community kitchens, senior centers and after school programs.  Much of this food includes shelf stable, dry good and canned items.  When food banks receive donations from a food drive, each item is checked for damage and expiration and cataloged to the appropriate place in the warehouse.  The warehouse is clean.  There’s always some person zipping by on a Hi-Lo.

Where is the produce?  It is there too, stored in large cardboard containers and towers of smaller, stacking boxes.  For the most part, produce is seasonal at Michigan food banks.  Although you can usually find bagged onions and potatoes in the food bank year round, the facility is teeming with fresh produce in the summer.   This is because food banks are more than just reserves and a special place for holding and storing goods.  Food banks in Michigan are innovative, resourceful entities, utilizing networking and relationships to procure produce from fields in Michigan.

Michigan grown apples

Michigan grown apples

Think about how many apples made it into after school sacks for hungry school children last year.  342,851 pounds of apples were distributed through Food Bank Council of Michigan programs alone.  How many children rely on nutritious food that is coordinated through the food bank?

A recent hunger study released through FeedingAmerica.Org tells us that 23.7% of Michigan children do not have a secure, consistent access to food.  Wait, what?  Almost one in four Michigan children face hunger?  This must be an exaggeration.  Let’s think about this.

Consider the rural Upper Peninsula, or any rural setting in Michigan.  Obviously transportation barriers are at play here.  If the parent is not able to provide food, where will the kid eat?  At school?  Once a day?  One meal a day?  Consider our neighborhoods.  Next time you drive through the vast districts of Michigan’s largest cities, count how many grocery stores you see.  I’m not talking about convenience stores, packed with nutrient- free, calorie-filled snacks, I’m talking about a grocery store with dairy and fresh produce and meat.  I’m talking about a place where a family can buy food to make and share a meal.

The food bank is at the core of multiple hunger relief ventures in the state.  A bank of talented professionals are busy coordinating volunteers, providing community outreach, managing farms, coordinating donations, utilizing social media efforts, and advocating at the local, state and national level to keep legislative attention on hunger relief efforts.

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Bob Randels, Founding Executive Director of the Food Bank of South Central Michigan

Folks in Michigan’s food banking sector are continually working toward improvement.  We are filled with big dreamers, including active volunteers and passionate leaders.   One of the pioneer leaders in Michigan’s food bank network is retiring this year.  Robert Randels served south west Michigan for 30 years.  30 YEARS!  The food bank network is filled with people like Bob, whole-heartedly committed to bringing food to those in need.  This year, we heard the story of a 93 year old volunteer who has been serving food at the same community kitchen, week after week, for 63 years.  Who are these people in your community?  They are there, we promise you.

Food Pantry in Oakland County

Food Distribution Site in Oakland County

Hunger exists in shadows because of social stigma.  Many people don’t want to admit they need help.  Do they internalize some dysfunction in our society, such as a struggling economy, as their fault?  34% of Michigan households seeking assistance have at least one employed adult (feedingamerica.org).  By keeping hunger in the shadows of our society, we have imprisoned the solutions to the shadows as well.  We invite you to come learn about hunger and what is being done to curtail hunger in Michigan.

This blog will attempt to expose hunger for what it is:  an ugly monster of a social problem that is preventable.  We’d like to introduce you to the food bank and hunger relief network in Michigan.

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