With hunger on the rise, Food Bank Council asks the Michigan Legislature to boost funding
That would allow the council to increase the amount of produce purchased from Michigan farmers, officials say
Michelle Lantz, the chief executive officer at the Greater Lansing Food Bank, a member of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, with food bank volunteers. | Photo by Anna Gustafson
As Michiganders increasingly turn to food pantries and other community sites in the wake of pandemic-related benefits ending and grocery prices rising, the Food Bank Council of Michigan is asking lawmakers for additional funds advocates say would help to address the growing food insecurity that’s leaving residents to struggle with hunger across the state.
The Food Bank Council of Michigan received about $2 million in the state’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget. Now, as lawmakers are crafting their proposals for the FY 2024 budget that goes into effect on Oct. 1, the council is requesting $20 million.
That increase, Food Bank Council of Michigan Executive Director Phil Knight said, would allow his organization to purchase additional food directly from Michigan farms and secure millions of more meals for emergency food recipients, who are largely working families, children and retirees. The council works with a network of regional food banks to provide food for about 3,000 local agencies, such as pantries, that distribute food at no charge to those who need it.
“The $2 million puts out about 6.7 million meals from our network; $20 million would put out about 65 million,” Knight said.
That increase, Knight said, is crucial in a state where there are some 1.1 million Michiganders facing food insecurity and where the Food Bank Council distributed 157,931,650 pounds of food in 2022. Knight also said the number of people accessing food through pantries and other charitable sites could increase by as much as 30% in the coming months as Michiganders face the rollback of federally funded pandemic-related programs, like the emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that ended in March.
“If you’re hungry, your mind is consumed by that and you live under that toxic stress of, ‘What am I going to eat and what am I going to give my kids to eat?’” Knight said. “Our minds are not free to think about, ‘Should I get a better job or get this job training?’ Nope, it’s, ‘What are my kids going to eat tonight?’”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included $2.05 million for the Food Bank Council of Michigan in her proposed budget for FY 2024. Leaders at the council said that’s not necessarily reflective of a lack of support for an increased line item, but rather of the fact that the group was not able to hold conversations with the governor’s office prior to her budget proposal presentation in February.
Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Following the governor announcing her proposed budget in February, legislative leaders are now crafting their own budget proposals and will go on to conduct budget negotiations with Whitmer.
Some Democratic lawmakers — who now control the state House and Senate — expressed support for the council’s $20 million request, and others said they backed an increase but didn’t commit to a specific amount.
“The Food Bank Council has asked for a big increase, which I’m supportive of,” said Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), vice chair of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee that typically handles those budget items.
McDonald Rivet went on to say that “we’ve reached a crisis state for a lot of people” due to inflation causing soaring prices at the grocery store and the rollback of pandemic-related programs, like SNAP and assistance with rent and utilities.
“You aggregate all of these things, and what they mean overall for people in low-income households can be pretty devastating,” McDonald Rivet said.
“I’m worried about the number of children going hungry,” she continued. “We’re seeing long lines at food giveaways.”
House Appropriations Chair Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) said she “would expect something to go through” in terms of an increase for the Food Bank Council of Michigan.
“I don’t know if it will be $20 million; I know it will be something,” said Witwer, who added that subcommittee chairs in the House are currently crafting their own budgets and will be submitting those to her by mid-April.
“When I came into office and found out there were 15,000 to 20,000 people in my district who don’t know when their next meal will be, it’s pretty stunning,” Witwer said. “… I think that people are not aware of the need that’s in our state, and they are not aware of how many people go without food.”
There may also be two supplemental spending bills in the near future, Witwer said — a school aid supplemental and a potential supplemental using federal American Rescue Protection Act (ARPA) dollars. Knight said he hopes a supplemental spending bill would include additional funds for the Food Bank Council of Michigan. Witwer said “there’s nothing specific as to what will be in” the supplementals as of now.
Knight, Witwer, McDonald Rivet and Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), who chairs both the Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations Subcommittee and Natural Resources Committee, all emphasized the need to address food insecurity in Michigan, both with emergency aid, like food at pantries, and by tackling the systemic reasons that food insecurity exists. Those systemic reasons, Knight said, include low-wage jobs that leave individuals working but unable to meet basic needs.
Brixie called the Food Bank Council’s request for $20 million a “reasonable request” and noted that “a lot of that food is coming from Michigan farmers and producers.” Brixie’s subcommittee oversees funding for the Double Up Food Bucks program that aims to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income families.
Through the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System (MASS), a program that started in 1990 as a partnership between the Food Bank Council and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the council purchases food directly from more than 120 farmers in the state and then distributes those fresh fruits, vegetables and other goods to their network of regional food banks.
“The economic benefit to the state by giving preference to Michigan farmers and food producers is significant,” Brixie said.
Witwer noted that Whitmer’s proposed budget addresses food insecurity by allocating $160 million to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all of Michigan’s 1.4 million public school students.
“I really appreciated in the governor’s proposed budget that we take away the lunch shaming and the food shaming in schools,” Witwer said. “I’m very much pushing for that to be taken care of in the budget.”
The governor’s proposed budget also includes $16 million for the Double Up Food Bucks program. That program doubles the value of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) payments — which SNAP recipients use to pay for food — when individuals purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at various grocery stores and farmers markets.
If you’re hungry, your mind is consumed by that and you live under that toxic stress of, ‘What am I going to eat and what am I going to give my kids to eat? Our minds are not free to think about, ‘Should I get a better job or get this job training?’ Nope, it’s, ‘What are my kids going to eat tonight?’
– Food Bank Council of Michigan Executive Director Phil Knight
A growing need for food
Right now, there’s more than 1 million Michiganders who don’t have adequate access to food, Knight said.
That number is expected to rise significantly with the rollback of federally funded pandemic-related programs, like the emergency SNAP benefits that were implemented at the start of COVID in 2020 and ended in March, according to Knight. Those benefits gave individuals, at minimum, an additional $95 to purchase food every month — and often more.
According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based left-leaning think tank, 1.35 million Michigan residents — or 13% of the state’s population — received SNAP benefits in 2022. Now, those 1.35 million individuals no longer have the SNAP money coming from federal COVID funding, with some families losing hundreds of dollars every month for food.
While many people likely have enough money saved to make it through March without accessing emergency food, Knight said he expects the number of individuals and families needing support from food banks to dramatically rise. Based on conversations Knight has had with food banks in other states where pandemic-related aid ended earlier than in Michigan, those organizations saw a 30% increase in people coming to them for food.
“We’re about to get overwhelmed in Michigan with an increased number of people” in need of emergency food, Knight said. “Many seniors who were getting, say, $250 in food assistance, many will drop to that SNAP minimum, which is $23. Where are they going to go? They’re going to go to the charitable food network.”
Additionally, as more people turn to that network, the Food Bank Council of Michigan is simultaneously facing a steep drop in food given to them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), historically one of the main sources of food for food banks, as the government agency sees a decrease in emergency COVID funds and navigates national and global supply chain issues occurring in the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The USDA provided about 6.9 million pounds of food to the Food Bank Council of Michigan during the first quarter of 2022; this year, that dropped to 1.5 million, Knight said. He doesn’t expect that situation to improve in the near future.
Inflation also has left food banks with rising food costs at a time when they have to purchase far more food on their own due to the decline in USDA aid. Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit, for example, is “spending an excess of $1 million a month buying food to meet a need in the community,” Knight said.
This has essentially created a perfect storm as working families and retirees who had relied on those SNAP dollars and other pandemic-related programs, like assistance with utilities and rent, turn to food banks now buckling under the weight of increased demand and decreased support from the federal government, Knight said.
Small farmers like us are super important. Without the small farmers, what type of food are you going to see in the grocery store, and where is it going to come from? We need small farmers.
– Karen Swift, a farmer in Bronson
Of those accessing food at pantries and other community sites for help, the overwhelming majority are from households where at least one person is working or are seniors who are retired. More than 50% of those accessing support from the Food Bank Council’s network are in households where at least one person is employed, 23% are children, 19% are seniors, and 6% are homeless, according to Knight.
In other words, Knight said, it’s largely working families, children and retirees who need help putting food in their refrigerators right now. The executive director pointed out that it’s not difficult to understand why working families are reaching out for assistance with basic needs like food when the state’s minimum wage is $10.10 but a single adult with one child in Michigan has, on average, to earn at least $20.65 to meet their living needs, according to “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Michigan 2020” report. Written by Diana Pearce, the director of the Center for Women’s Welfare University at the Washington School of Social Work, for the Food Bank Council of Michigan, the document analyzes how much Michiganders must earn in order to meet basic needs, like food and housing.
The amount someone must make to support themselves or their family in Michigan varies depending on the number of people in a household and where that household is located — those living in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Kalamazoo, for example, are going to need to earn more to meet the cost of living.
“In Ingham County, a single parent with a school-aged child and a preschooler needs $24 an hour to not need government or charity,” Knight said.
That collision of low-wage jobs, the sunset of pandemic-related benefits and inflation has left many Michiganders to navigate food insecurity — which Knight noted can be seen across the state, from Michigan’s biggest cities to its rural areas. For example, about one month ago, the Food Bank Council sent two semi-trucks filled with food to the eastern Upper Peninsula. They had enough food for about 400 families — but 600 showed up, Knight said.
While Feeding America West Michigan — which partners with the Food Bank Council of Michigan — was able to send a third truck the following day, that soaring need for food is leaving those working in the charitable food network deeply concerned.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Knight said.
Supporting Michigan farmers
A boost in state funding would allow the Food Bank Council to increase the amount of produce it purchases directly from Michigan farmers, Knight said.
For Lee and Karen Swift, who own Swift Pumpkins and Produce, a farm in Bronson, the collaboration with the Food Bank Council of Michigan has been a vital one. They’ve gone from sending about 5,000 pounds of produce, from zucchini and green beans to butternut squash and eggplant, to the council in 2014 to about 300,000 pounds now.
“If they buy locally, it makes it cheaper for them and they can provide more food because they cut out the shipping cost,” Karen Swift said. “We grow the food here, we box it up and the Food Bank comes and picks it up here at our farm. If they bought oranges in Florida, they would have to have that shipped up, and you know the price of trucking is horrible now.”
Plus, Lee Swift added, the closer a farm is to its produce’s final destination, the fresher that produce will be. The Swifts said they feel pride knowing they’re supporting working families in need.
“It’s the working class man; those are the people who benefit” from the food banks, Karen Swift said.
“This is why we do it, to feed America and to feed Michigan especially,” she continued. “We want our kids in our community and surrounding community to be healthy.”
As part of its efforts to support local farms, the Food Bank Council has purchased about 42 million pounds of produce from Michigan farmers through its MASS program. Through that initiative, the council partners with more than 120 farmers to buy what’s known as “seconds,” or produce that is good to eat but doesn’t look perfect and may not be accepted to sell in grocery stores.
“These farmers, they don’t want to see anybody go hungry and will sell to us their seconds, their blemished — maybe the apple isn’t what the Meijers, the Krogers want,” Knight said. “They’ll sell their B-grade to us, and we’ll do all that at a reduced rate.”
This investment in Michigan farms is especially crucial as “corporations are buying up farm ground” and are “not producing the types of food that people need,” Karen Swift said.
“They’re producing soybean and corn,” she added. “Small farmers like us are super important. Without the small farmers, what type of food are you going to see in the grocery store, and where is it going to come from? We need small farmers.”
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