Near the forest-enclosed mansions of Barton Drive, one of Ann Arbor’s wealthiest neighborhoods, stands a 17,000 square foot warehouse holding enough imperishable food to sustain a large family through several nuclear winters.
Along with condensed milk and canned goods, the warehouse’s two-story shelves are stocked with bags of carrots the size of a short adult, a rainbow spectrum of cereal boxes and a cornucopia of juice boxes.
But what might seem like a lifetime supply of groceries isn’t going as far as it used to for Food Gatherers, the food bank that owns the warehouse.
“More people are seeking food assistance than ever before,” said Kate MacEwen, director of the annual fund for Food Gatherers.
The swirling haze of dismal economic news of the last year is a headache for the nation’s economic leadership. But for a growing portion of Michigan’s middle class, financial distress hits right in the stomach.
While the state’s stagnant economy has increased the need for aide organizations in recent years, food banks statewide report a drastically sharper increase in demand for 2008.
“It’s been over the last six months that food banks are reporting that they’re not able to keep their supplies stocked,” said Jane Marshall, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, a food distribution network serving more than 2,500 food banks across the state.
Marshall said demand has risen up to 40 percent for some of the council’s partner agencies.
The spike in people seeking food aide is directly correlated with the economic crises of the last year, food bank staffers said. The mortgage crisis, auto industry layoffs, the wildly vacillating stock market and surging energy prices have compounded to send precariously balanced household budgets hurdling over the edge.
“These are the people that have mortgages, they have car payments, they have kids in college,” Marshall said. “These are the people who haven’t ever had to ask for help before … These are the foreclosure people, too, you know.”
MEALS FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS
Every Friday morning at the Second Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Harvey Glaze races around the church’s large recreation room giving hugs and spouting off orders in preparation for the commotion of a weekly food and clothing distribution program.
As the church’s human services ministry director, Glaze — or Brother Glaze to clients and volunteers — witnesses the changing face of hunger from the front lines.
A year and a half ago, Glaze said, the program gave away somewhere between 60 and 75 large grocery bags each week. Nowadays, weekly distribution is between 100 and 125 bags.
What’s more striking than the increase in demand, though, is who the extra groceries are going to.
The Friday morning program’s clientele has traditionally been — and still predominantly is — the elderly residents of nearby subsidized housing and people who have struggled with extreme poverty. But in 12 years of directing the program, Glaze said he has never seen so many individuals and families from conventional households.
“I’m finding at this point and time we’re seeing more of the middle class coming when it used to be more people on the poverty line,” he said.
Sitting quietly, waiting to collect their bags after the 11 a.m. devotion service — or joining the line later, once the sermon ends — newcomers to the program have a sheepish air about them, Glaze said.
“The first time they come, they are somewhat, how should I say… they have to throw away the pride,” he said. “They are not arrogant, for sure, but after they have come here — the way we reach out to them with the love and that kind of thing — it very quickly discards the feeling that they are being degraded.”
To accommodate the batch of new clients, Glaze has had to ask the church’s congregation for a specific kind of donation they weren’t used to making: children’s clothes. Families with young children make up a larger portion of the program’s clientele than ever before.
Sarah Hierman, director of programs for Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, said the 400 agencies in the regional network have seen an increase in the number of families seeking their services.
“Families are particularly being hit hard,” Hierman said. “I think that is definitely a population that our agencies are seeing more and more — and young families, in particular.”
Since October 2005, the price of white bread in urban Midwest areas has risen 65 percent, according to date compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average price of bread for all U.S. cities rose 34 percent in the same time.
EFFICIENT BANKING PRACTICES
If individuals suffer from the spike in food prices, one would think a food charity industry that supplements community donations with bulk purchasing would definitely experience a crunch.
But luckily for the people who depend on them, the nation’s food banks are much more prepared for a downturn than Wall Street investment banks or the Detroit Three automakers. Every food bank representative interviewed said that her organization has been able to meet the increase in demand.
Food Gatherers director MacEwen said that the food bank has increased its budget for purchasing food by 187 percent to satisfy larger and larger orders from 150 local food aid programs that rely on groceries attained through Food Gatherers.
Glaze, whose food aid program at Second Baptist Church receives more than 95 percent of its provisions from Food Gatherers, said the county food bank has provided for increasing number of clients.
“If we didn’t have enough they make every effort to increase it, and they usually do,” he said.
Food Gatherers has grown immensely since its founding in 1988, when it operated out of one room above Zingerman’s Delicatessen with a single truck to deliver food. Today, Food Gatherers acts as the county’s preeminent food charity, providing enough food for 7,500 meals a day.
But backing Food Gatherer’s operation is a nationwide web of food sources. Just as the Second Baptist Church program receives food from the county bank, Food Gatherers is one of the many recipient agencies in the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s network.
The statewide council solicits large-scale donations from national aid organizations like United Way and Feeding America as well as big food producers like Kraft Foods.
After receiving its share from the Food Bank Council, Food Gatherers can barter for shipments from the national network Feeding America with credits that are allotted depending on the number of people served and the poverty level of the area. Once Food Gatherers has used its credits, it can purchase food at extremely discounted prices.
Food Gatherer’s ability to buy and store large quantities means the food bank largely escapes the hurt of escalating food prices that individual families feel, MacEwen said.
“It is more expensive for us to purchase, but we have tremendous purchasing power because of the warehouse,” she said.
Another route to procuring mass shipments of food is petitioning grocery stores and producers to donate special edition items that are no longer marketable but still completely edible.
MacEwen said that around the release date of the movie “Get Smart,” Food Gatherers got a large donation of a special version of Sierra Mist produced to advertise the film, “Undercover Orange.” The same thing happened with Halloween-themed cereal after October 31, as well as another experimental Sierra Mist flavor that failed to take hold of the grocery shopping public, “Cranberry-Splash.”
COMMUNITY GIVING ON THE RISE
For all the limited edition soda that might find its way to the Food Gatherers warehouse, the real source of the food bank’s supply is local.
Of 4 million pounds of food distributed in the last fiscal year, 73 percent was donated locally by restaurants and grocery stores or by individuals through food drives.
MacEwen said the amount of food distributed increased while the percentage that was donated locally stayed relatively constant — meaning that community giving has also increased.
Both Hierman and Marshall, from the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said their organizations have managed to keep up with demand thanks in part to community giving.
“Individual giving is actually up,” Hierman said. “I think the community itself has seen this as a very necessary service. Michigan obviously has been going through our own recession for much longer and I think our donors see food as a necessity.”
It’s fortunate that community giving has escalated because donations by corporations are on the decline.
In Washtenaw County, the loss of Pfizer — the large pharmaceutical company that shook the area when it closed its Ann Arbor site — can be felt in a more subtle way than the direct elimination of jobs. Food Gatherer’s is coming to the end of a grant that was funded by the pharmaceutical company to pay for a supply of Boost Plus, a protein drink that supplements the diets of the area’s more vulnerable food bank clients.
“Pfizer was definitely a loss to the community,” MacEwen said. “They provided a lot of volunteers, too.”
Hierman, with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, said the network has seen a drop off in donations from corporations that used to give regularly.
“We used to have an abundance of Kellogg’s cereals and now our particular food bank receives much less,” Hierman said of the Battle Creek-based cereal company.
It’s true that Michigan’s economy was in dire straits long before Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld found himself out of a job. But it might have taken doom and gloom headlines heralding a $700 billion bail out and the swan song of the auto industry for Michigan residents to realize their neighbors could be in need.
“I don’t think it’ll be any harder this year to meet the needs,” Marshall said about the reliability of community donations. “One of the good things about a bad economy is that people believe it. ‘I know someone who’s losing their house’ or ‘I know someone who lost his job.’”
But looking at donations in November and December is no way to gauge community generosity six months from now. As all the food bank representatives said, the holiday season is the season of giving — an impulse that wears out or falls to the wayside come January 1st.
Last week, the Food Gatherer’s warehouse was stocked with boxes upon boxes holding turkeys and hams that were about to be distributed for Thanksgiving — more boxes than might have been provided in past years, but still not enough for every client who would like to put on a traditional dinner.
But as all the food bank employees agreed, summer will be the true test of the charity food industry’s capability to meet the mounting need. Families whose children would get one good meal through government programs at school are left to their own means for months. Food drive organizers aren’t yet thinking of their annual goals. And as economic experts have predicted, the recession will likely worsen in the next half year before any sign of relief can be hoped for.
It stands to be seen whether whatever negative economic news that may unravel this summer will remind people that hunger doesn’t happen only one time a year.