Ann Arbor’s Food Gatherers addresses record-breaking food insecurity during pandemic

An emergency food box. (Food Gatherers)

ANN ARBOR – Each month, local anti-hunger organization Food Gatherers continues to break records as it works to serve community members experiencing food insecurity brought on by economic hardship during the COVID-19 health crisis.

According to the organization, its partner agencies have reported a 30-300% rise in visitors since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Nearly half of these visitors had never sought emergency food before, and in August, one parent who attended Food Gatherers' Summer Food Service Program said it acted as a lifeline for her family.

“This food saved us through the whole summer,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous as she picked up food for her son. “After our food stamps ran out, it helped us get through the rest of the week.”

Many Washtenaw County residents have found themselves in a similar situation, said Food Gatherers President and CEO Eileen Spring.

“Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 7 residents in Washtenaw County were food insecure, meaning they did not have access to reliable, nutritious food,” Spring said in a statement. “The pandemic is exacerbating food insecurity among those already in need, and is causing many others to seek help for the first time in their lives.”

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Without its thousands of volunteers, Food Gatherers had to drastically change the way it serves the community this summer. In addition to a lack of manpower, disruptions to the national food supply chain and a decline in donated food have placed additional pressure on the organization.

“We have never seen anything like it, there was a drastic increase in people needing help, and at the same time, the pandemic forced us to completely rethink every aspect of our service model," Spring said in a statement.

In response, Food Gatherers increased its monthly food distribution by nearly 30%, and broke its own record in June of the largest annual total pounds of food distributed.

For the first time in its 31-year history, Food Gatherers donated 7.8 million pounds of food to those in need by increasing its distribution schedule, hiring additional staff, increasing donated food by partnering with the University of Michigan and local restaurants and receiving additional support from the National Guard from April to July and again in September.

As the winter months loom, Food Gatherers said it expects the need to continue to rise.

Food banks nationwide have been advocating for Congress to include food resources for families in the next relief bill and an increase in food stamps benefits.

On the local level, Spring said donations are urgently needed as the food bank switches from emergency response to long-term planning.

“Now more than ever, food banks need your support,” Spring said in a statement. “The number of people facing hunger where we live is greater than ever, and it’s not going down. We expect there to be a real need for food for a very long time.”

Anyone in need of food can contact Food Gatherers at 734-761-2796 or visit their website where they can find an up-to-date list of food distribution sites.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.