Photo showing food distribution site in Detroit in March 2020, with stacked boxes of food and a short line of people waiting for food.
Gleaners workers distribute produce at Detroit Premier Academy in March 2020. After receiving significant federal support during the pandemic, the reserves at Detroit-area food banks are drying up as inflation exacerbates families’ food needs. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

In January, Brother Rob Roemer said about 40 people came to the food bank at Capuchin Community Services every day. By June, it was more than 50. Now, it’s almost 70. 

“The need has picked up,” Roemer said of the 75% increase in daily visitors. He suspects a number of contributors are at play, like inflation and stimulus money running out.

Pantry staples like salad dressing, mayonnaise and oatmeal had been hard to come by for the food bank in recent months, said Roemer, who oversees Capuchin’s inventory and purchasing as the Services Center director. When select items run low, families can get extra food of their choosing. 

“Families are in need, and especially really heavily in need right now as things are expensive,” he said. “Inflation has drained people’s rent money and so it’s taking away from their money for other items or food. So we need to be here for them.”

Rising prices and strained resources have left food banks in a bind to provide for low-income families, many of whom have yet to fully recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. To illustrate inflation, the average price of a gallon of whole milk in Detroit climbed 67 cents between January and July ($3.29 to $3.96). From there, it fell to $3.77 in August.

Need help? Find a food pantry or mobile food distribution site with Gleaners’ PantryNet map, showing locations across metro Detroit. If you need other assistance, text DETROIT to 67485 for housing and utilities information or to speak with an Outlier reporter. 


As food insecurity worsens, federal support dries up

Food insecurity worsened in Michigan during the pandemic, according to a report by the state’s Food Security Council. The report defines food insecurity as “being uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food due to insufficient money or resources.” That means that those who were already vulnerable were left disconnected from resources, and those previously scraping by fell into insecurity. In recent months, inflation compounded this need. 

“Food sourcing is down, so you have to scale to what you can do. You can’t scale to meet the need or else you’ll run yourself out of business,” said Phillip Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan. “That’s the hard choice that food bankers have to make every day. They see how much need is in the community, but they’re not able to address that need to the scale that they were in the pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s a business decision.” 

During the first year of the pandemic when food insecurity grew by about 38% statewide — impacting approximately 1.9 million people in 2020 — federal support programs stepped in to fulfill the rising need. Food distribution increased to 230 million pounds of food distributed in 2021. Between 30% and 40% of that came from a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

That contribution is now down to 6-8% so far in 2022, Knight said. But the rise in food security caused by the pandemic has yet to subside, causing a significant hardship on the charitable food system. 

This article was produced in partnership with the Detroit Free Press.

One of Michigan’s staple food bank networks, Gleaners Community Food Bank, distributed more than 71 million pounds of food during the 2021 fiscal year, compared to a pre-pandemic average annual distribution of 46 million pounds of food across Michigan. Its supply comes from donations from food manufacturers and farmers, purchases from distributors and the USDA. 

“Those served probably haven’t noticed much because we still had enough USDA reserve inventory that, as we saw need fluctuations, we could still meet that need,” said Kristin Sokul, a spokesperson for Gleaners. “We’re in a position where we no longer have the ability to use our reserves to make up the difference.”


Distribution driven by food availability, not need

In July 2021, Gleaners had 3.3 million pounds of food in its reserve inventory. It’s now down to 1.4 million pounds and is expected to be exhausted in coming weeks, Sokul said. Federal programming, including the CARES Act, Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), bolstered Gleaners’ output during the pandemic. But this temporary assistance has either ended or is set to end soon — leaving a gap where heightened need still exists.

“We’re not going to have reserves again, our distributions are going to be driven specifically from what we can bring in and/or purchase each month,” Sokul said, “and unfortunately that’s not necessarily driven by need but by availability.”

While the pandemic worsened conditions for the vulnerable and highlighted dysfunctions in the food bank model, it also allowed for creativity in solutions and pinpointing need — providing for the severest needs to receive the most help and cut waste, Knight said. 

“The food banks are in a great position because we’ve learned so much,” he said. “Our mission is to solve this, not to placate it, not to diminish it — we want to get rid of it as best as we can.”

And in the meantime, Roemer advises families facing hard times to persevere. 

“You just have to trust that things will get better,” he said. “And it’s easy for me to say when I’ve got what I need, but I just hope that they can bear with it and see it through.”


Miriam Marini is a breaking news reporter for the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media. Contact Miriam at miriam@outliermedia.org.