She lost her job while on maternity leave. A free ...

She lost her job while on maternity leave. A free online grocery store kept her family fed.

Filling Our Plates: How an innovative Detroit emergency food distribution model empowered recipients through choice.

Lakisha King and her daughter. Credit: Cybelle Codish

Lakisha King is standing in her kitchen in northwest Detroit, wielding a spatula and channeling southern-style YouTube cooking sensation Danni Rose, also known as StoveTop Kisses. That’s where King gets her culinary inspiration. “I absolutely love her,” she says. 

The evening’s dinner plan is seafood-stuffed salmon with broccoli and bread. Families First Marketplace, an emergency food distribution model pioneered by Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency and Atlas Wholesale Foods during the pandemic, provided the fish and vegetables. They designed the program to get food to people like Lakisha, who were experiencing food instability for the first time. 

At 40, King was surprised to find herself pregnant in 2019 — she didn’t think she could have children and was even considering adoption. She worked as a Head Start teacher and had always been self-sufficient. But when she lost her job while on maternity leave — making her ineligible for unemployment — in the middle of the pandemic, she knew she needed some help.

“I wasn’t getting food stamps; I was paying cash for food. And I was on maternity leave, which they didn’t give me much,” King said. “And once that was gone, had it not been for the Families First program, we would have definitely struggled with food.”

King had seen pantry food donations through her workher work as a Head Start teacher, and was shocked to see the high quality of the food delivered through Families First — fresh frozen vegetables and salmon, chicken breasts, frozen mac and cheese, bags of redskin potatoes. 

“I’m not downplaying any pantry food,” she said. “But this is top-shelf food — it’s nothing to play around with. It was really beneficial to my family.”

And not only was the food high quality, but King was able to select the foods from a menu of choices via her phone app, place a delivery, and arrange for contactless pickup.

That was particularly important for King, who suffers from several food allergies. 

“They gave me an opportunity to shop and choose for my family from a great quantity of things that you can choose from,” she said. “This menu was tailored just for me.”

Lakisha King’s dinner of salmon, broccoli and rolls. Credit: Cybelle Codish

Choice in emergency food distribution

King is just one of the millions of Americans who faced food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic. As the need grew, service organizations like Wayne Metro that had not previously focused on emergency food distribution suddenly found themselves facing it head-on. 

Founded in 1971, Wayne Metro is a social service agency that connects low-income residents across southeast Michigan with assistance for utilities, Head Start, GED prep, financial counseling, homeless services, and more. Although it had not conducted emergency food distribution prior to the pandemic, the agency’s experience serving the community meant it found itself uniquely positioned to meet that need as job losses drove people to food banks, many for the first time.

“We had built an infrastructure already through our Connect Center, and we have customer service staff who work with clients, identifying what their needs are,” said Carla Chinavare, Director of Youth and Family Programs for Wayne Metro. “That infrastructure already existed so we thought, well, how do we use that?”

But Wayne Metro wanted to do something different. Emergency food distribution programs generally allow recipients limited choice, and Chinavare wanted to treat people with as much dignity as possible.

Meanwhile, John Kohl, CEO of Detroit-based Atlas Wholesale Food Company, had just seen his restaurant business take a nosedive as the pandemic shut down the country. He found himself looking to the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program to keep the company afloat. Created as part of the CARES Act in April 2020, the program was designed to provide food assistance to pantries and social service agencies during the pandemic while paying farmers for food directly. Atlas answered and won a call for bids for local food distributors to get food from farmers and producers to the agencies.

Kohl brought on consultant Erika Block to help run the program. When Atlas lost a second-round bid, Block saw a new opportunity to partner with Wayne Metro, which had separate funding to provide food assistance to its clients and wanted a way to get that food to people in the most dignified and convenient way possible. 

Block worked with Wayne Metro and Atlas to develop the Families First Program, an online marketplace service to allow food assistance recipients the ability to choose their items and arrange for convenient delivery. Within weeks, they designed a web app that allowed clients to choose among various food options and household cleaning supplies. Much of it was sourced from local vendors that Atlas had established relationships with, like Dearborn Meats and Michigan Farm Freezer.

King scrolls through the Families First marketplace. Credit: Cybelle Codish

Recipients who choose their food are less likely to waste it; one study found that clients who received food bundles with items selected by the local agency used 12% less of the distributed food than those who were provided some choice.

The USDA’s farm box program saw substantial criticism —  supplier-side problems including inexperienced distributors, high costs and administrative errors led to the program being ended by the Biden administration in April 2021. But researchers have pointed to some bright spots within the program, andBlock credits it with getting the Families First marketplace innovation off the ground.

“The USDA Farmers to Families food box program essentially kickstarted an entirely new program (in Families First),” she said. “It’s the relationships that emerged from the USDA program that sparked the innovation. The partnership between a social service agency and a small, local distributor is the secret sauce to this program. And the benefits flow to the local suppliers that provide food and packing services, which supports the local economy. The impact of this can’t be underestimated.”

The platform allowed Wayne Metro to receive online orders from clients — many of whom were new to the agency and new to food assistance — funneling more than $1.6 million in state and federal food assistance through the program. Each client was given $375 in food credit and had two opportunities to order through the system. Matrix Human Services and Renaissance Head Start later joined the program to serve their own clients, ultimately bringing the total number served to more than 3,600 families. Atlas sourced the food from its local supplier network, and Wayne Metro’s staff served as customer service, including translation services. Atlas also coordinated logistics, transporting the custom grocery orders to homes and seven delivery sites across the region where clients could pick them up instead of waiting in long lines.

King prepares a meal using food from the Families First program. Credit: Cybelle Codish

Block believes the Families First program represents a model that can be replicated everywhere food insecurity exists.

”People have limited access to healthy food everywhere, for a variety of reasons. Most food assistance programs have limited choice,” she said. “And people need transportation to pick up food. The Families First model provides choice, opens up a new supply chain that offers affordable, healthier food, and offers home delivery options. This can have a broad impact.”

She points to emerging models across the nation that are shifting the narrative away from short-term measures to initiatives that begin to address root causes while building up the integrity of communities on the receiving end.

“This is a model which will ultimately expand access to affordable, healthy food through online ordering for anyone who wants it, whether they receive donated food through an agency, or through using their own funds or SNAP benefits — while providing the wraparound support that an agency like Wayne Metro can offer through its full program offerings,” she said. “The goal isn’t just to provide food. It’s to eliminate poverty — and food is a critical starting point.”

The program was on hiatus over the spring and summer, but the organizations just received word that Wayne County approved funding to continue the work this year, and will begin doing a smaller set of home deliveries for seniors starting in July with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

“It’s just a more dignified approach,” said Chinavare. “We think it’s a good model for others and something we can expand even further in the state. Connecting families with food at a time of need is something we wanted to achieve, and I feel that we did.”

Fresh and healthy

The future is looking brighter for King and her family. She was able to pick up work teaching online over the spring and is thankful for the food assistance that saw her through a rough patch. She plans to return to her job teaching Head Start in person in the fall.

In her kitchen, King begins by sauteing shrimp in a bit of butter, then transfers the shrimp to a bowl and mixes in cream cheese, chives, gouda cheese, lemon juice, and canned lump crab meat and seasoning. She spreads the mixture between two full salmon patties — no splitting a single filet, according to StoveTop Kisses. After laying some butter on top, she places the whole thing in the oven for about an hour at 325 degrees.

In addition to StoveTop Kisses, King also loves to cook her grandmother’s recipes.

“We have a cold family crab salad recipe,” she says. “Now that is something I learned directly from the matriarch of our family —  my grandma. She’s no longer here with us, but that good cook is still here.”

King sets about prepping the fresh-frozen broccoli from Michigan Farm to Freezer as the stuffed salmon cooks in the oven. She places it in a pot with a bit of water, butter, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. A fresh-baked Pillsbury roll rounds out the meal.

Just as dinner is ready to eat, King’s 10-month old daughter, Kelila, wakes up from her nap. She won’t eat the salmon because King is worried about allergies and introducing too many foods too soon. But she’ll be tasting the bread and the broccoli. One of King’s top priorities is to make sure Kelila grows up with a healthy diet. 

She may not have been expected, but she is King’s pride and joy. In the front room, King has been creating decorations for her upcoming first birthday party. She bought special shoes and hand-painted a one-of-a-kind Peppa the Pig theme on a cute denim dress for her special day.

“My daughter’s health and eating habits are very important to me. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables daily is a must,” she said. “That’s why the food provided by the Families First program was essential to building and fostering my goal for eating healthy. Not only do l eat the food but l also purée all the vegetables for my daughter and she loves them.”

This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak