While the University of Michigan has canceled classes in response to the COVID-19 virus and advised students to leave campus if they are able, some organizations and local restaurants have continued food distribution at no cost to help those in the community facing food insecurity.

Food banks such as the University’s Maize and Blue Cupboard and Washtenaw County’s Food Gatherers are continuing their services during the coming weeks to assure that no one in the community will go hungry. 

Helen Starman, chief development officer of Food Gatherers, said many people will be feeling the effects of food insecurity for the very first time due to layoffs spurred by COVID-19. Starman said Food Gatherers is providing meals to these people, as well as others who have benefited from their organization in the past.

“There are going to be people in this community who have never needed it before who are going to find that they need food,” Starman said. “We are open, we will stay open and we are here to provide food to anyone who needs it.”

Starman said Food Gatherers recognizes the risk that public school shutdowns in Washtenaw County pose to children on free or reduced meals. To alleviate the burden on families, Starman said the non-profit has set up locations in the community for families to collect two pre-made meals a day per child under the age of 18. 

This not only goes for children who are registered for reduced or free meals at school but for any child enrolled in the county public school system under 18. Additionally, any individual enrolled in special education programs through the public school system may collect their two meals a day if they are 26 or younger.

Starman said the food bank acquires the food by coordinating with school systems and then distributing the food to the people who need it.

“What’s happening right now in this sort of emergency situation is that each school district in Washtenaw County is taking the lead in providing meals to their kids, and those meals are being paid for by the Michigan Department of Education,” Starman said. “The MDE has now said, ‘You can give meals to anybody. You don’t have to check the kids at the door and provide information about needing reduced priced or free meals.’ So, our role in that is coordinating and helping people know where to get the food and how to pick it up.”

Starman also said the organization recognizes some families cannot access the facilities during the hours that Food Gatherers is open so they are trying to be flexible and cater to the community’s needs.

“We know that, especially now with quarantines and social isolation, people have even less ability to get out and go to the food pantry during certain hours and pick up food, or maybe they are working or don’t have the transportation to get there,” Starman said. “So, we’ve been in really close contact with all of our community partners, our food pantries, our meal programs to get extra food out to make sure that everyone — children, families, individuals, veterans and seniors — are able to get food in this situation.”

In addition to the work Food Gatherers is doing, the Maize and Blue Cupboard has continued its services in providing food for the University community. Steven Mangan, senior director of MDining, said the organization plans to remain open for the foreseeable future because of a recognized need for their operations. MDining, donations, Food Gatherers, Central Student Government and the Dean of Students office support these operations.

Mangan said during a crisis, it is especially important for their organization to continue its mission. 

“There are a number of students that have been and will continue to experience food insecurity,” Mangan said. “In addition, many off-campus students may not have access to food or basic supplies. Maize and Blue Cupboard will provide these needed services to all students and faculty and staff during this crisis.”

Volunteers are continuing to work at both the Maize and Blue Cupboard and Food Gatherers, but precautions are being taken to ensure the health and safety of all who come in contact with the organization. 

Mangan said the Maize and Blue Cupboard asks their volunteers and shoppers about their health. If healthy, they will be admitted into the store in limited numbers to encourage distance from one another. The organization also provides gloves and hand sanitizer for their shoppers.

“Upon entering, shoppers are asked to present their MCard,” Mangan said. “Staff at the entry will visually observe and question shoppers about their wellness. Shoppers will be able to enter three at a time to maintain social distancing. They are instructed to use sanitizer and wear gloves that are provided by Maize & Blue Cupboard and instructions are posted regarding how to handle food. Shopping baskets are sanitized between shoppers and surfaces are sanitized every two hours.”

Starman said Food Gatherers is also taking similar precautions in terms of monitoring their volunteers and are asking about each individual’s health.

“We have modified our volunteer opportunities,” Starman said. “We don’t have them in congregate situations like with our volunteers in our community kitchen. We have stopped some of our normal volunteer roles, like not having volunteers in our warehouse. We are also having everybody answer questions before they volunteer and then when they come to the shift, such as, ‘Have you been sick? Are you sick? Have you traveled out of the country within this certain amount of time? Are you in a risk group?’”

Additional community groups and individuals have reached out to Food Gatherers to donate their help, such as Cottage Inn Pizza and BD’s Mongolian Grill, according to Starman. 

LSA junior Aaron Boockvar-Klein said he feels these food donations show a lot about the way society deals with crises. He also said he thinks there will be many eager volunteers.

“During the last week or so, I’ve seen a lot of people come together and to get through this time by just being generous for no gains,” Boockvar-Klein said. “I think there are a lot of people at home right now looking for something to do, and people wanting to make a difference in this crisis. So, I think there would be a lot of people willing to volunteer their time, or extra food if they have it.”

Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu.

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