In Michigan, the second most diverse agricultural state in America, one in six children goes to bed hungry.
That was among the findings in Map the Meal Gap 2019, the latest report from Feeding America on food insecurity and the cost of food at the local level.
“This is a real disconnect,” said Afton DeVos, COO at Grand Rapids-based Kids’ Food Basket, a nonprofit that provides evening meals to food insecure children. “The problem is we have families who can’t afford the food we’re producing. One in four jobs in Michigan is connected to food, but we’re not providing families with sustainable living wages to afford that food.”
While the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables has increased by 40 percent since the 1980s, the cost of processed food has decreased by 40 percent, according to data DeVos provided.
For many families who experience food insecurity, their biggest challenges are cost and time.
“What we experience as an organization is that many of our families are not making a thriving or living wage or they’re working two or three jobs to do so,” DeVos said. “They may be working two or three jobs, which gives them the ability to afford good quality food, but they don’t often have time to prepare it.”
The Map the Meal Gap report reveals that food insecurity exists in every Michigan county. It also shows that in Michigan, 15.9 percent of the state’s children are food insecure.
The study complements the findings in the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s Self-Sufficiency Standard, which ensures the best data and analyses are available for Michigan families and individuals to make progress toward real economic security. The Standard calculates how much income a family must earn to meet basic needs, including housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, miscellaneous expenses and taxes.
Phil Knight, executive director for the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said 47 percent of people who come through the food bank network have someone in their home who’s employed full time. The remainder is made up of children, senior citizens and the homeless.
He said the biggest and best tool to combat food insecurity is a job that pays a self-sufficient wage, but too often conversations about this turn to talk of a minimum wage.
“There are ways to create wealth and revenues in people’s lives other than that one conversation,” Knight said. “We’ve done some good work with that, but not enough to require people to work. We have to incentivize them. At an hourly wage of $11.50, they’re not eligible for any government food assistance. At $13.50 an hour, they’re not eligible for housing benefits.”
Innovation remains a major part of solving the issues that affect food insecurity and access to healthy food, Knight said. He cited examples of some manufacturers in Michigan that are bringing in mobile pantries at shift changes as a way to increase food security for their employees and their families.
“They’re supplying these as an employee benefit,” Knight said.
People who are food insecure often worry about what they’re going to feed themselves and their children, he said.
“When a person isn’t food secure, they tend to have to make trade-offs in any given month,” Knight said. “They miss an average of 3.5 meals per week. They’ve got to make trade-offs between transportation, medicine and food, and food is the first thing that gets compromised so they buy cheaper food.”
To that end, people often turn to products like ramen, which is not a healthy option, especially for children who need healthy food to support their physical and mental growth, DeVos said.
“Without good, nourishing food, our children cannot thrive,” DeVos said. “For us, food equity is our true north.”
Knight agreed that food security needs to be part of a broader discussion in the economy.
“We talk all the time in Michigan about workforce development and retention,” Knight said. “If these kids don’t have access to the right kind of foods, they won’t have opportunities to grow into the person we need. We in Michigan are ranked 35th in third-grade reading levels out of 50 states. It’s like a domino effect.
“There’s no good reason for any of this.”
Oftentimes, organizations need to study logistics to determine if food is getting to people when they need it, he added.
“We know where the food insecurities are in the state, but (we really need to be) understanding the circumstances of people and how much they need and for how long and to understand how large that safety net needs to be,” Knight said. “There is an errant cost in distributing food to people in need.”
Nationwide, about 45 million people are food insecure and 1.3 million of them live in Michigan, Knight said, adding that Wayne County, the Upper Peninsula around Marquette, and Benton Harbor have the highest rates of food insecurity in the state.
Drilling down even further, statistics show that about 20 percent of Michigan children are affected by food insecurity. One-third of those children are African American or Latino, according to DeVos.
Each weekday, Kids’ Food Basket serves 8,000 children living in Allegan, Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties through 49 different sites.
“We provide a critical evening meal,” DeVos said. “It’s that third meal of the day that allows children going home to families who can’t afford to provide a healthy meal or have access to not great food, to have a healthy meal.”
In his five years at Michigan’s Food Bank Council, Knight said he has seen advances in stemming food insecurity, but too many of the state’s children continue to be at risk.
For example, snow days from school have unintended consequences for children who live in food insecure homes. If those days happen to fall on a Monday or a Friday, that’s three consecutive days that these children don’t have access to free food, Knight said.
Part of the challenge stems from policies embedded in legislation that run contrary to the goal of getting food to children in Michigan, according to Knight. He cites “Meet Up and Eat Up,” the summer food service program that was created to ensure children in lower-income areas could continue to receive nutritious meals during long school vacations when they do not have access to the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs.
The program is operated at the local level by program sponsors and is administered by the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Health and Nutrition Services.
“We have Meet Up and Eat Up, but that only reaches 17 percent of kids in the state who are eligible for free or reduced lunch,” Knight said. “They have to come to a specific spot, consume the food there and are not allowed to take it with them. Maybe they have an apple they didn’t eat and they wanted to give it to their mom.
“It’s embedded in the legislation that all of that feeding program has to be done on site. It’s federal money. We could take that same amount of money and flood that entire community with food for the same amount of money being spent to feed a child in a congregant setting.”
Addressing the causes surrounding food insecurity will lead to a major shift in the other poverty-associated issues affecting society, Knight said.
“This is one of those rare non-partisan issues,” he said. “It’s an issue that unites us.”
For DeVos at Kids’ Food Basket, the key is that studies such as Map the Meal Gap need to cause people to act.
“This should create some movement,” she said. “You need to take the place and privilege you start from and use it to change the way you vote, give and volunteer.”
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