‘It saved our lives’: How expanded food assistance during the pandemic fed over 1M Michiganders

By: - March 28, 2022 9:56 am

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When Kim Burns became the sole guardian of her two grandsons seven years ago, she wasn’t expecting a pandemic that would leave her husband sick and unable to work and shut down the kids’ schools where they received lunch everyday. 

In March 2020, Burns’ husband, Rob, was hospitalized for presumed COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic. His lungs flooded with water and he developed heart problems. The fallout from COVID-19 caused him to have to leave his job, cutting their family down to one income and an influx of hospital bills. 

Around that same time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all schools to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but that left many families struggling to figure out childcare and school lunches. To address the more than 800,000 students who relied on free and reduced-price lunches at school, the state expanded food assistance by rolling out the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) benefits, becoming the first state in the country to offer the program. 

“My husband has not been able to work for almost a year due to health issues, and since it’s just me taking care of the household and covering the extra bills for both of us, food is very important in our house,” said Burns, 62, who lives in Alanson in northern Michigan. “One week we had hardly any food. And then when I got that [EBT] card, it just saved our lives.”

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Elizabeth Hertel, who took over this position in January 2021 after former Director Robert Gordon stepped down, said one of the state’s top priorities was expanding access to food during the pandemic, especially for women and families. 

“We have women, who in many cases are the primary caregiver for their children and the only earner currently in their household. We saw many challenges with COVID-19, with initial economic difficulties as businesses temporarily closed or reduced hours and children being virtually schooled,” Hertel said in an interview with the Advance last week. “So our priorities were ensuring that people had access to what they needed in order to continue living. One of those priorities was food assistance and access to healthy food.”

And as unemployment rates jumped to historic levels in the first few months of the pandemic, more Michiganders took advantage of food assistance programs. 

By April 2020, 792,669 households with 1,498,658 family members received more than $234 million in assistance. That’s an increase of nearly 164,000 households and $97 million from February 2020, just two months prior. 

As the pandemic continues, two years later, the number of households benefiting from food assistance programs has slightly declined.

In February 2022, DHHS reports there were 705,084 households with 1,322,569 people receiving more than $320 million in food assistance.

These numbers are excluding the families who benefit from P-EBT, which Hertel says has delivered food to over one million children. 

The number of P-EBT students have gone down as schools have reopened to in-person learning and students have greater access to meals at the school, said DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton. Only students who are free and reduced lunch eligible and have a COVID-related absence or are learning virtual due to COVID-19 are eligible for P-EBT this school year.

Wheaton said the state is currently in the process of getting federal approval for retroactive P-EBT for the current school year, but those numbers are still expected to be lower than in previous years because of students returning to in-person learning.

Susan J. Demas

‘I had to feed my children’

Burns works at North Central Michigan College and has always had an income too high to receive food assistance from the state, despite struggling to make ends meet.

When Burns’ husband was working, his paychecks went to the family’s grocery bills. 

“When he stopped working, that cut our food down to zero. Zilch. I hardly ever bought food with my paycheck. My paychecks went to bills and his paychecks went to food,” Burns said. “Then he started having health issues for the last two years, and so we’ve had food issues probably for the last two years.”

Burns said she was taking advantage of every opportunity to get free or cheap food during the pandemic, including picking up meals from the schools. 

“When they had the free food twice a week or whenever, I was down there every time they had it. I was there because I had to feed my children,” she said. 

Burns, who has been working at the college for 27 years, says she doesn’t think she will ever be able to retire because she will need to cover her husband’s medical bills and cover the cost of insulin for her grandson who has Type I diabetes. 

What she wants is for the state to expand eligibility for more food assistance programs to help her cover the cost of food, which has become increasingly more expensive.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation has increased overall consumer prices, with gas prices, cost of housing and food prices soaring. Food prices have seen a large increase, rising about 1% in February, which is the largest monthly increase since April 2020.

Joseph Llobrera, a food assistance expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said food hardship has been creeping upward since mid-August 2021. Back then, 7.8% of adults reported that their household didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. 

By early January 2022, that rate was 10.2%. 

“I think it’s fair to say that inflation, overall and food inflation, has contributed to rising food hardship,” Llobrera saud, noting that during that time, COVID-19 variants, delta and omicron, were disrupting economic activity.

Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst at Michigan League for Public Policy, said the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) seems to be meeting the needs of families, but there’s more that could be done.

“The general structure of SNAP eligibility seems to be doing what it’s intended to do, which is to reach families in need. But it would certainly be good to expand that eligibility a bit to capture more households into that eligibility range. We know that you can be above the poverty line, you can be above the SNAP eligibility line and still have a lot of needs,” Ruark said. 

Hertel said the state is going to continue to expand assistance programs for families and work to improve economic opportunities for mothers as the state begins its recovery from the pandemic.

“Being able to provide those opportunities to make sure that people are attaining economic stability is incredibly important, and I think we have so many programs that are offering those supports,” Hertel said. “But I think being able to really focus on food security for families throughout these incredibly turbulent times was really important.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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