In a warehouse three miles north of the Michigan Union, a committed group of volunteers distributes more than 9,000 meals to 43,000 Washtenaw County residents.
The meals are prepared at Food Gatherers, the primary food bank in Washtenaw County, where more than 5,000 volunteers work to alleviate local hunger. Mary Schlitt, the Food Gatherers’s director of development, said student volunteers and University programs like the School of Public Health play a considerable role in assisting the organization.
Since 2006, the number of the bank’s food recipients has increased 138 percent, and more than 14,000 children received emergency food last year, according to Schlitt. Facing that increased demand, Food Gatherers is working to meet it.
Aunt Millie’s, known for its logo of a silhouette of a woman serving a loaf of bread, donated and delivered 2,400 loaves of Butter Top Wheat Bread Friday morning to Food Gatherers.
At the warehouse on Friday, Greg Fanslau, branch manager for Aunt Millie’s bakeries, said Aunt Millie’s was “very happy to give the donation and help out in any way possible.”
In addition to businesses, government programs like the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System — a partnership between food banks, the state government and farmers — donate to the food bank. Last week, the MASS gave thousands of apples to Food Gatherers.
Zingerman’s Delicatessen founded Food Gatherers in 1988 to help feed hungry people in Ann Arbor. The warehouse was originally located in an abandoned slaughterhouse, but the large amount of donations quickly filled the building to capacity, Schlitt said. In 1997, Food Gatherer’s expanded its services to all of Washtenaw County.
Beyond the entrance of the warehouse, sits an exotic display of foods that includes canned rattlesnake, buffalo, elk and alligator as well as blueberry pizza topping, octopus and squid.
It’s an “exotic museum,” Schlitt said, explaining that these donated foods aren’t given to the public.
In addition to the more bizarre foods, the warehouse is full of nonperishable foods, including cans of chili, sweet corn, beans and applesauce stacked out of eyesight.
Every year, nearly 5 million pounds of food travel through the warehouse doors and into hungry mouths.
While a lot of the food is donated from the United States Department of Agriculture and Federal Emergency Management Agency, Food Gatherer’s also purchases food in bulk.
Though the USDA is one of their largest donors, Schlitt said donations were down this year, which required the organization to push for more local donations and purchase more food to meet the community’s needs.
According to Schlitt, Food Gatherer’s receives emergency boxes of food from Washtenaw County’s Employment Training & Community Services to give to residents who have “hit rock bottom” and don’t “have any food in the pantry.”
One ETCS box contained pasta, applesauce, milk, cheese, canned meats, and more.
“Lots of stable foods,” Schlitt said. “Nutritious. Ready-to-eat.”
Two rows of shelves remained partly empty, and Schlitt said they hope to fill the space with donations from food drives Food Gatherers will host with Kroger, Busch’s Fresh Food Market and Whole Foods Market in the upcoming weeks. According to Schlitt, more than 150 community programs work with Food Gatherers.
Next to 25 trays stacked with onions, workers sorted through produce like squash, cauliflower and organic bananas. A man walked by pushing a cart of large blue barrels given to local businesses to display for food donations.
A large walk-in cooler contains perishable goods like strawberries, cheese and pre-packaged meals from local businesses.
Schlitt said Food Gatherers has a 24-to 48-hour turnaround period to empty and restock the goods because of their short shelf life and space constraints.
“We are basically at capacity,” she said.
Toward the back of the warehouse is a shopping pantry, like a mini-market, where agencies are given credits and are allowed to purchase goods for people with specialized diets — including vegetarian and gluten-free — that they assist.
They can also purchase treats for children, like bags of candy or boxes of Razzle Blue Blitz Fruit by the Foot.
While the sweets are popular, Schlitt said the main mission is to provide healthy food for the needy.
“Our belief right now is not only to feed people but to feed people nutritious foods,” Schlitt said. “We feel that investing in people’s health is a great investment into the community.”