The Food Bank Council of Michigan is partnering with state officials and local food banks to help reduce food insecurity among senior residents, an ongoing problem that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Food Bank Council recently received a $200,000 grant from national nonprofit Feeding America to develop a pilot grocery delivery service for seniors. The Food Bank Council will partner with state Department of Health and Human Services officials and three local food banks to start food delivery programs in Detroit, Battle Creek and Ann Arbor.
Officials hope the pilot can be expanded into a statewide program.
Dawn Opel, director of research and strategic initiatives for the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said the grant program formed in the wake of the pandemic that further stressed older residents’ ability to access food. This often happened as older residents eschewed grocery stores or congregant areas to collect food to avoid large crowds, or as they were separated from their caregivers.
“We’re working to build a program where we can really scale our work so no matter where a senior lives, in any part of the state, we can ensure they can take part in this program when we’re done with it,” Opel said.
The Food Bank Council is the trade association representing all seven food banks across Michigan. The initial planning stages of the grant will identify needs with Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, the South Michigan Food Bank in Battle Creek, and Food Gatherers in Ann Arbor. By the end of 2022, the Food Bank Council hopes to be partnering with the state’s Aging and Adult Services Agency on a statewide program, Opel said.
The program would be similar to Meals on Wheels — a separate volunteer-based organization that delivers prepared food to older adults who either can’t cook or are socially isolated — but instead developed to reach more people.
“We know that there are a lot more seniors and individuals with disabilities in need of food who either can’t get to grocery stores to shop for themselves or can’t afford food or aren’t eligible for benefits,” Opel said. “They may live in a rural area and may be very far from food access.”
Indeed, rural Michigan — particularly areas in the northeastern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula — is particularly susceptible to food insecurity because of residents’ relative isolation from others. As of 2018, food insecurity rates were the highest in these parts of the state.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed definitions for ranges of the severity of food insecurity. “Low food security” includes reduced quality, variety and desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake. “Very low food security” includes multiple indications that eating patterns are disrupted and food intake is reduced.
According to an October report from the state’s Food Security Council, created last year via executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, about 1.3 million Michigan residents faced food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic. That number grew to 1.9 million people last year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this problem of food security, as rising unemployment and school closures have brought economic challenges to many Michigan households, creating many new food-insecure individuals in need of assistance at the same time that many who faced food security pre-COVID-19 have become more vulnerable,” according to the Food Security Council report. “High food insecurity rates correlate with pronounced racial disparities, in areas such as the metro Detroit area as well as several counties in Northern Michigan in which Tribal reservations are located.”
The report adds that vulnerable populations like older adults, people with disabilities and individuals at increased COVID-19 risk were “disproportionately unable to access food” during the pandemic.
“The closure of facilities such as senior centers and group homes, combined with fear of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus, created a situation where, simultaneously, congregate meals were no longer offered,” according to the report.
To address the problem, Michigan food banks partnered with the state to deliver more than 35,000 “quarantine boxes” of food to Michigan seniors between April and December 2020.
The state has offered congregate meal programs since the 1970s.
“We’ve had a long history of nutrition programs for older adults,” said Scott Wamsley, deputy director of the state’s Aging and Adult Services Agency. “Certainly, the pandemic heightened concerns about food insecurity and making sure older adults have access to healthy food.”
Wamsley said the state was “really excited to join” as a partner in the Food Bank Council’s grant-funded program.
“These local programs can help connect with individuals who would benefit from the program,” Wamsley said. “The need for food is a big one. I don’t think there can be too many types of assistance programs. I think this (pilot program) really fulfills that assistance in getting food out to somebody at their home as opposed to them having to travel to get the food.”
The agency will “bring expertise in nutrition and nutrition for older adults,” he added, as well as connections with local councils and commissions on aging.
Opel said the quarantine food box program showed “a lot more seniors, in particular” across Michigan could be served by a Meals on Wheels-type program. The pilot program will analyze the needs for various types of supplies, such as groceries or prepared meals, and how best to get them directly to residents.
“Food banks are really good at getting a lot of food to a major distribution point, like a pantry or a drive-thru,” Opel said. “What we don’t really have the infrastructure for is that last mile, or in rural areas, that last 20 miles.”
Opel also maintains that food insecurity among senior residents “remains sort of hidden.” Older individuals tend to be “very stoic” and “will suffer in silence until it’s truly severe,” Opel said.
Older residents driven from the workforce also may not have the same type of pension plans and financial security as earlier generations. Similarly, Opel said food insecurity cases are likely underreported because it doesn’t fit the “American dream” narrative of living comfortably after retirement.
“They don’t want to reveal that, it’s sort of a point of pride,” she said.
Efforts to stem growing cases of food insecurity come as food access models more broadly begin to shift, particularly with the spike in e-commerce options to order food or groceries online.
Opel said the impetus for applying the Feeding America grant was simple: “If Amazon Prime can do it for people with means, we should be able to do it for people without means.
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