Detour Detroit/Photography by Cybelle Codish
Lakisha King didn’t used to worry about how she would put dinner on the table. But last year, while on maternity leave after a surprise pregnancy, pandemic closures put her out of a job. Suddenly, she had to worry for two.
“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 is just one of thousands of Detroiters who struggled to afford food in the last year. An October report from the Michigan Food Security Council estimates that one in 10 Michiganders was food insecure in 2018, with a 38.2% increase in food insecurity during the pandemic and a 63.3% increase for children. “High food insecurity rates correlate with pronounced racial disparities, in areas such as the metro Detroit area,” the report states.
Since last spring, food pantries have been the third-most common COVID-19 need requested by Detroiters who called the state’s 211 hotline, after testing and rent assistance. And while need has fallen since the height of the pandemic, it persists. In the University of Michigan’s latest Detroit Metro Area Communities Study, a weighted sample survey of 2,238 Detroiters conducted between January and March this year, 23% of respondents said getting enough food to eat was a challenge they had faced in the last month.
Forging new pathways to food security for Detroiters
The immediacy and extent of the need — not to mention new safety precautions and unknown health risks — stretched the region’s food assistance system nearly to the breaking point.
But it didn’t break. Instead, it transformed and metastasized: Food pantries started offering drive-up programs; schools created satellite food pick-up sites for families when classes were canceled; farmers sold their produce directly to consumers; restaurant chefs pivoted to opening mini marts and making meals for their neighbors in need.
In the face of a crisis that’s still very much alive for Detroiters, food system innovators have started forging new pathways to food security that center agency and dignity for people who need help. These models — grounded in collaboration and sustainability — have leveraged the region’s existing food distribution infrastructure assets so that Detroiters could fill their plates.
Because full plates at a family meal is what it’s all about. The most efficient, well-funded food delivery system fails if it doesn’t allow recipients to feed their families with autonomy, pride and security.
“No one ever wants smashed-up bread,” said Stephen Bentley, a volunteer driver with Food Rescue US. “But if people take care of what they’re doing, if it comes from your heart, and you act as if you were giving to your own family, then you see it in a different way.”
For this Filling Our Plates series, Detour, Planet Detroit and Tostada Magazine were welcomed into the homes and neighborhoods of four Detroiters who tapped into new kinds of food security programs — ones that did not exist in their current forms before the pandemic. We saw the intention they put into planning recipes and cooking; the power they found in food grown by hand; and the joy with which they shared their meals with friends and loved ones.
Their stories illustrate institutional and grassroots interventions that are making inroads on Detroit’s enduring struggle with food insecurity. We went deeper with the organizers, programs and volunteers to see how they responded to extraordinary needs in extraordinary times — and learned how what they’re doing can help build a just, resilient and secure local food system even after the pandemic ends. Here’s what we found.
Families First: A partnership formed from disparate industries built an emergency food program that felt like actual grocery shopping.
Atlas Wholesale Food Company, which saw its restaurant orders take a nosedive during the pandemic, used a federally funded program to kickstart a collaboration with social service agency Wayne Metro that combined their respective expertise in food distribution and customer service to create a better way for people to access emergency food assistance.
Atlas and Wayne Metro built an online marketplace in just a few weeks, where clients like King could shop for the food her family wanted. On offer were high-quality, nutritious items like frozen salmon, broccoli and red skinned potatoes. The organizations organized delivery and pick-up sites, and soon partnered with other groups to serve more people.
“It’s just a more dignified approach,” said Carla Chinavare, Director of Youth and Family Programs for Wayne Metro. “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.”
Food Rescue US Detroit: An Uber-like model connects smaller shops with leftover food, delivery drivers and community groups to halt food waste
Darraugh Collins launched the Detroit chapter of national nonprofit Food Rescue US in 2019 after realizing how much food goes to waste in hospitality and food service. The flexible model is one solution for gleaning food waste at small scales in an ever-shifting demand landscape — whether those demand shifts are driven by pandemic, economic shock or natural disaster.
The food waste recovery project uses an Uber-like app program to connect volunteer drivers with food waste donors and recipients. It’s found a way to meet an unfilled niche in the food rescue ecosystem by moving smaller quantities of food that would otherwise be trashed from businesses to those in need, delivering more than 6 million meals in the last two years to more than 80 community organizations.
“We don’t have a lower limit; we will pick up any amount,” Collins said, “and because it’s our volunteers picking up in their own vehicle, and they’re delivering it to a specified agency, we’re able to really get into the nooks and crannies of Detroit that are forgotten.”
Keep Growing Detroit: When grocery shopping anxiety drove Detroiters to grow their own food, a nonprofit with a mission to build a food sovereign city one community garden at a time was ready.
Attorney Marcia Spivey had never gardened before. But early in the pandemic last year, the sight of empty grocery store shelves made her feel anxious about food security.
So she gathered a group of family members — two sisters and three cousins — and made a pact to grow their own food. They were inspired by memories of their parents and grandparents– who had all tended large gardens on Detroit’s east side. The family started by working together to build raised garden boxes in each of their yards, and then got to growing produce they’d later share at family meals.
“We were very afraid,” Spivey said. “And we vowed that there will never be a time in our life or our kid’s life ever again, that they will know how to eat from the ground.”
Some of what they ate all summer, fall and winter long started as seedlings at the Keep Growing Detroit farm. The nonprofit’s Garden Resource Program offers home and community gardeners transplants, seeds, soil tests, classes and other assistance. It’s been around in some form since 2003, but saw unprecedented interest last year — more than 800 new gardeners joined.
Southwest Detroit Cares Mutual Aid Collective: Undocumented communities tapped into mutual aid traditions to scale up no-strings-attached food assistance, neighbor to neighbor.
Maria Estrada’s stove didn’t work. She didn’t have a car to get to the grocery store. Her husband left and she didn’t have money for rent. Estrada, who moved to Michigan with her family from Mexico when she was four years old and is undocumented, didn’t seek help from a nonprofit or the government — she just told her friend. That friend, Elizabeth Valdez, sprung into action, connecting with Southwest Cares Mutual Aid Collective to raise money and find food, getting her rent paid and free meals for Estrada and her children.
For people experiencing hardship during the pandemic, mutual aid efforts around the country launched amid the pandemic have been a crucial lifeline. For undocumented immigrants who couldn’t access support like stimulus checks, they’ve filled in systemic gaps.
“If it were me that needed something, I’m going to tap into a mutual aid group or a person individually because I know that you don’t have to jump through so many hoops to get what you need and have to explain yourself,” said Angela Gallegos. She helped to found the SW Cares Mutual Aid Collective. “This is what we’re here for; this is what community is all about.”
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.