Food Bank of Eastern Michigan finds ways to continue to serve food during Covid-19 pandemic

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Flint, MI — The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is experiencing a new predicament: providing for those in need in the midst of a national pandemic in the safest, most efficient way possible.

FBEM, an organization that works as a food storehouse and distributor to non-profit organizations, serves 22 counties across greater Michigan. Among these is Genesee County, where 67,660 people are food insecure — 16.5 percent of the population. 17,820 of those are children. Since the start of the pandemic, FBEM has had to provide for even more people who are out of work, and in need of assistance.

Each year, FBEM distributes nearly 30 million pounds of food. They are currently up 1.3 million pounds in food distribution in just the last three weeks, compared to last year.

“We’re doing more in mobile distributions, a lot of our traditional pantries. Some of them have closed because they’re run by a more elderly population that should be sheltering at home,” said Kara Ross, President & CEO of the food bank.

“We did 179 (mobile distributions) in the past three weeks. But that’s almost 75 percent more than what we typically do this time of year.”

Despite the current numbers, due to the logistics of preventing the spread of Coronavirus, they are no longer accepting food items as donations. When asked how that has affected supply levels, Ross stated people can still donate money—something the food bank has always encouraged anyway as each dollar equates to about six meals.

“We’re able to use donor dollars, put them to use by buying full semi-loads of food product to get in here to distribute. So for example, right now, even dollars that are getting donated, we’re getting produce in from as far away as Florida and Georgia and Texas to have fresh produce here during springtime to have with our distributions that are going out. So every dollar we’re able to just maximize and put to use to food procurement,” Ross said.

Although some pantries have closed or shifted hours, Ross says that it’s not as many as she expected. Many are continuing to do work, with help from the community. She referenced kids, teenagers and community members, out of school and work, pooling their efforts and resources in order to distribute food across various counties. Locally, the MTA has also assisted with getting food to homes.

Aside from the shift toward mobile distributions, what has changed in light of recent events?

“I think the biggest thing is right now we’re seeing a decline of what traditionally a lot of people might see out of a food bank, which is the shelf stable food product. We don’t have as many items as what we had a few months ago because manufacturers are replenishing and filling up the retail stores. Some of that’s being diverted to the consumer and not being donated to the food bank. So, of course, then we have to buy more product because it’s not getting donated.” Ross said.

She went on to say the amount and the variety of product isn’t the same as before the crisis hit. They are procuring a lot of fresh products like produce, as well as a lot of frozen options due to their large freezer space.

“It’s going to look a little different, but the volume and ability of us to get fresh food and food out to people, it isn’t yet compromised in any way.”

As for safety practices, FBEM has had to follow such protocols as closing down community spaces, loading vehicles outside rather than having agencies enter the building for pick up, enhanced cleaning procedures, and closing down to volunteers.

“We’re doing the work with our internal team and staff that’s doing just a fantastic job keeping up with everything, and we also have 10 members of the Michigan national guard here on site working in our facility now too,” said Ross.

For an updated list of churches or pantries that are closed or have changed operations, residents can visit their website. FBEM also offers a comprehensive list of school and youth meal services, for children in need.

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