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Sunday, 01 March 2015 22:00

Nonprofit food pantries see increased demand despite falling unemployment

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Despite declining statewide unemployment rates, demand at food pantries such as Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes continues to rise. The organization and others like it in the region are also trying to offer clients healthier food options by partnering with local farms and farmers markets. Despite declining statewide unemployment rates, demand at food pantries such as Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes continues to rise. The organization and others like it in the region are also trying to offer clients healthier food options by partnering with local farms and farmers markets. C

Despite a drop in statewide unemployment to its lowest level since 2002, nonprofit organizations that provide food assistance to families have seen an increase in demand.

That disparity has left many observers perplexed. But the reasons for the heightened demand are many, say area food pantry leaders, who cite chronic underemployment, changes to government food assistance programs and a growing wage gap as contributing factors.

“It’s the sign of the times,” said Greta Faworski, resource development director for Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

The Southwest Michigan-based nonprofit and others in the region, including Grand Rapids-based Dégagé Ministries, are wrestling with how best to serve the needs of a growing population of people who turn to food assistance programs to feed their families. Both organizations work to provide emergency food to hungry residents.

“There is unemployment, but there is also underemployment. A person’s car breaks down and they have to make choices. Utility bills are getting more expensive, so sometimes people have to choose between paying their bills and eating,” Faworski said.

For Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, the mix of unemployment and underemployment has translated into an increase in the demand for services. The organization projected a 12 percent increase in its budget for food orders for its 2014-2015 fiscal year. As of February, food orders are already up 16 percent, Faworski said.

“Traditionally, things slow down in February and March, but we haven’t seen that yet,” Faworski said, adding that July 2014 was the highest month for demand, with 15,000 people served.

In 2012, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes moved into a larger building, which provided a larger warehouse, freezer and fridge. Although the organization expanded its capacity, demand from the community continues to rise, she said.

One driver for the increased demand for food pantries is related to the recent changes in food assistance programs, Faworski said. In September 2014, Michigan was one of four states that received food stamp cuts, causing recipients to lose an average of $75 a month in food assistance. The program, referred to as “Heat and Eat,” cost states $1 per family in the past. In 2014, because of the demand for assistance, the cost went up to $21 per family, which would have cost the state an additional 16 percent from its projected energy assistance budget. As a result of the increase, Michigan opted out.

With less money available from government food assistance programs, individuals and families are forced to seek other alternatives, sources said.

“People are losing benefits they had depended on previously and people are looking for ways to fill those gaps,” said Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Dégagé Ministries. “And that’s where the social service industries can help and walk alongside them.”

According to statistics in Dégagé’s annual report, 400-500 people come through the nonprofit’s doors on a daily basis. Comparatively, Loaves and Fishes sees approximately 700-800 individuals per day.

A Grand Rapids Heartside neighborhood staple, Dégagé Ministries serves those in need by providing low-cost meals, bus tickets to get to job interviews and shelter at the Open Door Women’s Center. The organization also runs an ID office where patrons can receive state identification, birth certificates and marriage licenses.

“We sit down with the individuals and say, ‘How can we help you meet your goals?’” Palmerlee said. “Each individual is different. Some people have support systems, others don’t have a support system. Some people move here thinking there is work but there’s not, or they get a job and then they’re the first ones to be laid off when things get a little slower. So there are people who are really struggling. They’re on the edge and need a little help.”

The rising need for these services challenges nonprofit organizations not only in making sure there is enough food to serve the community, but also in their commitment to serving quality foods.

Dégagé Ministries and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes have placed a higher priority on serving nutritional meals within the past year. Both organizations collaborate with area farms and farmers markets to get the healthier meals to their clientele, executives said.

“It’s allowed us to be the recipient of fresh fruits and vegetables that was not possible before,” Palmerlee said of the partnerships. “We collaborate with a couple other suppliers who help, but the more fresh fruits and vegetables we have, the better. We’re also working with a dietitian providing healthier meals. We no longer add salt. If someone wants salt, they have to ask for it.”

The neighboring Gods Kitchen in Grand Rapids recently received a grant for a dietitian to come into the neighborhood to help with creating balanced meals. Dégagé is also becoming more specific with what it asks from its partners.

“We used to have a lot of doughnuts, but we’ve gone to those partners and said, ‘We appreciate your generosity, but we’re going to cut back on doughnuts,’” Palmerlee said. “We used to serve doughnuts every day and we no longer do. We have them once or twice a week and fresh fruits other days.”

Collaborating with community partners is just one way these organizations can provide quality food and services at a low cost, sources said. They also rely on volunteers and interns to help fill in some of the gaps. In 2014, Dégagé had 1,200 volunteers that put in more than 19,236 volunteer hours. In January, the nonprofit brought in Erin Eighmey, a Grand Valley State University student who will help Dégagé with food resources by working with community partners and making the most out of current donations.

“I’m interested in how we can use donations more and how not to buy anything,” said Eighmey, who is majoring in public and nonprofit administration with a hospitality and tourism management minor. “Right now, I’m learning how

it works there and how it can be improved, so the food’s not wasted. I think that’s a huge problem here in America.”

By using volunteer and intern resources, organizations like Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes and Dégagé Ministries are able to cut down on cost while still improving efficiency. According to Independent Sector, a leadership network for nonprofits, foundations and corporations, each volunteer hour in Michigan is valued at $22.13. In Dégagé’s case, that’s more than $425,000 in volunteer value for 2014.

“Thirty-five volunteers and interns help us fulfill our mission every day, which increases our capacity to meet the needs of our community,” Palmerlee said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

Read 3943 times Last modified on Sunday, 01 March 2015 16:30

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