Groups rally to feed first-time seekers amid outbreak
ALPENA — She’d been waiting in line for two hours, Irene Rasmussen said Friday morning as she and her dog, Puppy, perched in the back of her pickup truck at a pop-up food pantry in Alpena.
With an hour and a half still to go before the distribution was scheduled to begin, Rasmussen was one of hundreds of people who showed up at the pantry, waiting in rows across the expanse of the Northern Lights Arena parking lot to take advantage of the free food meant to help families keep their plates full and their budgets on track.
As the nationwide economy is shaken by coronavirus-related restrictions and unemployment filings continue to rise — including an increase of more than 500% in Alpena County — people who have never done so before are turning to agencies and giveaways to put food on their tables.
By the end of April, one out of every five households in the U.S. — and two of every five homes containing mothers and children — said they didn’t have enough food or enough money to buy more, according to data published by the Brookings Institute.
Those numbers are double what they have been any year in the past two decades.
Food help is needed desperately, and that help is available in Northeast Michigan.
At Friday’s pop-up pantry, cars started to line up before 9 a.m. for the 2 p.m. giveaway.
Rasmussen, shaded by an umbrella from the morning heat and knitting to pass the time, was there to pick up food for nine people, including her husband, who has health difficulties, and her son, who works at the hospital.
Stores are frightening for those with health concerns, she said, and the produce and canned goods provided by the pantry help her and her family stay safe as they navigate challenging financial times.
Every Friday, about 400 people visit pop-up pantries in the Alpena area, organized by a local group that calls itself Feed the Need Alpena.
“We don’t care how much money you make or what your situation is,” said Melissa Burns, a Feed the Need board member and regional coordinator for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, which provides much of the food given away at the pop-ups. “We just give you food, no questions asked.”
Many of the people coming through the pop-up lines are new to the experience of lacking food, she reported.
As she asks each driver in line for simple information — city of residence and how many in the household — she hears their stories, Burns said.
Some are there to pick up food for a family member or neighbor who can’t leave the house.
Some feel guilty for asking for help and are afraid they’re taking food away from someone more in need.
People come through the line in brand-new vehicles, or on a bicycle. One woman, no car at her disposal, stood in the line of cars holding onto the walker with which she had walked to the pantry.
Burns remembers one couple in the line — making their first outing after they had both recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — telling her with tears in their eyes they weren’t sure how to get back on their feet again and distressed because they’d never had to use a food program before.
At the pop-up pantries, though, everyone is a guest, Burns said. Nobody is turned away.
At first, when employment numbers began to skyrocket as workers were laid off or sent home because of coronavirus-related closures, the food supply for giveaways and food pantries was running thin.
Now, though, with new distributors making food shipments and the community stepping up generously, there’s plenty of food, Burns said.
Meat, here as elsewhere, is in short supply and might not be available for everyone, but individuals and businesses are donating product and money to provide as much protein as possible to anyone who needs it.
Other food given away at the pantries is donated by stores who freeze and donate as much food as they can, sending it to a warehouse in Flint to be sorted and pushed out to pantries and pop-ups across the region.
In Alpena County, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan distributed 221,563 pounds of food since Michigan shutdowns began on March 16 — more than three times as much as the same time period last year.
Asking for help can be the hardest part of getting help, said Chad Lytle, of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
He should know. He’s been there.
Two years ago, Lytle lost his job of 25 years. For the first time, he had to sign up for unemployment and figure out how to keep his family fed without a paycheck.
Before that time, Lytle admitted, a prejudiced part of him thought people who got help from the government or other sources were “riding the free ride.”
Click through the interactive timeline below for a look at how the coronavirus spread in Northeast Michigan. Story continues below graphic.
Then, he went through it himself.
For the first eight months, he and his family ate through their savings to have enough to eat, not knowing what resources were available and uncomfortable asking for help.
Now, Lytle works as a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program outreach specialist, answering questions about federal food programs and connecting people to resources to get them through tough financial times.
People new to needing help don’t always know what questions to ask or who to go to, he said. Many people wonder how to get food stamps, the tear-and-stick system of paper stamps replaced in Michigan by a debit-card-like Bridge Card.
Jumping through the hoops to apply for food and other benefits — or even knowing where the hoops are — can be intimidating, Lytle knows. It’s his job to help people take the necessary steps to ask for help, taking away the fear factor that keeps some people from getting needed support to feed their families.
If a family of four is making $2,790 or less a month, they could qualify for the food assistance paid for by their tax dollars. Those who earn a little more should still call him, Lytle said, because some government credits can bring their earnings within income limits.
Losing income doesn’t have to mean going without food, he assures clients.
More than 8,500 people in Northeast Michigan received food assistance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in April, with roughly half of those in Alpena County.
DHHS recently began allowing people to redeem food assistance through online purchases — a plus in Northeast Michigan, where no Grubhub or Door Dash food deliveries exist and a large elderly population is at a higher risk from the coronavirus.
Michigan was the first state to offer Pandemic EBT cards, providing assistance to families of about 990,000 children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended additional food assistance benefits to 350,000 Michigan families to make sure people who need food can get it.
From state and local government benefits, from local shelters, and from food box deliveries for the elderly, help is out there, Lytle emphasized.
People tell him they’re struggling but don’t want to ask for help. They’re OK, they say.
“I can help you be more OKer-er,” he tells them.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.
To learn about food assistance:
∫ Michigan SNAP hotline: 855-275-6424
∫ Alpena MDHHS office: 989-354-7200
∫ Chad Lytle, SNAP outreach specialist, Food Bank of Eastern Michigan: 810-730-0456