Officials: Need for food still high, but fewer people asking for help
ALPENA — At 9 o’clock Tuesday morning, 50 cars snaked around the parking lot of Word of Life Baptist Church in Alpena.
There used to be more, said Tammy Dean, food coordinator for the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, who on Tuesday was checking off names in a three-ring binder at a NEMCSA senior food distribution.
While the need for help with food is still high in many households — and will continue to be for some time, according to food distribution officials — fewer people seem to be asking for that help these days.
It’s a trend those handing out boxes of food hope will change.
“We, as a program, are doing our best to get it out to people,” Dean said. “If we have to make arrangements, if we have to meet somebody, we will do almost anything to get the food to somebody.”
Fewer people than usual are coming through NEMCSA’s monthly drive-through food distribution for seniors, said Dean.
Just when she thought distributions would boom, reaching more families and people than ever, the number of people seeking food has slacked off in the past month, reaching the lowest level she’s seen in 11 years.
Dean wonders if people aren’t coming because they feel unsafe. Food is placed in trunks or truck beds, and those requesting it never have to get out of their cars, Dean said.
Elsewhere, Hearts to Home, a small hygiene pantry administered by First United Methodist Church of Alpena, has had fewer visitors than ever, said pantry coordinator Anne Dessenberg.
In the past, about 30 people — pre-qualified by the Salvation Army — would visit the pantry for supplies each month.
Now, some weeks, nobody shows up.
The low numbers started in July and never picked back up, Dessenberg said. She’s not sure where the pantry regulars went or why nobody is asking for help.
Fewer people have approached the Salvation Army for help from its programs recently, said Maj. Prezza Morrison, pastor and Alpena administrator for the organization.
She attributes the dip to a generous community that’s meeting people’s needs though pop-up pantries and other philanthropic efforts.
What’s more striking than the reduced requests for assistance is the number of people making that request for the first time, Morrison said.
It’s hard to ask for help when you’ve never had to do it before, she said.
Morrison reassures inquirers that she understands they have bills to pay, stomachs to fill, and a roof to keep overhead. Sometimes, that means needing help with the little things, like a new package of socks or underwear for the kids — and that’s OK, she said.
The economic impact of job loss, reduced hours, or other life changes brought on by the pandemic last even after other parts of life get back to a semblance of normal, said Kara Ross, president of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
The organization secures food for distribution by groups across a 22-county region, including Northeast Michigan.
Usually, 14% of the population needs extra food support, Ross said.
Now, it’s more like 40%, she said.
That number won’t change for some time, she predicted. Many people had to burn through their savings — or sell their car or move out of their house — when times were tough.
Those people still need help, even when times are better, as their finances slowly get back in shape, Ross said.
In 2020, 2,600,000 pounds of food were distributed in Northeast Michigan through the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan — double the amount given away in 2019.
Ross expects that need to continue at least through the end of 2021.
“There’s still so many people that don’t know” they can ask for help, Ross said. “You can just say, ‘I need help with food.'”
For information on Alpena-area food distribution locations
Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency:
Food Bank of Eastern Michigan:
This story has been edited to reflect that the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan distributed 2,600,000 pounds of food in Northeast Michigan in 2020. That information was incorrect in a previous version of the story.