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Emergency food and the new normal

By W. DeWayne Wells
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Emergency food from pantries, soup kitchens and other social service agencies not only provides immediate relief from hunger, but also offers hope and capacity for people to get through difficult times.

It’s clear, however, that the need for emergency food aid is growing and that even as Michigan’s economy shows signs of improving, our community is facing a “new normal,” with lower incomes and a reduced standard of living for a great many households. The result: more people are relying on the emergency food system for longer periods of time.

Three core problems drive the need for emergency food: unemployment, health are costs and loss of a spouse or partner, either through death or divorce.


Michigan’s unemployment rate in September 2012 was 9.3 percent. In metro Detroit, that number jumps to 10 percent.

This is an improvement over 2009 rates of 14 percent. However, experts estimate it will take Michigan until 2017 to regain all the jobs lost during the recession.  And, as Michigan’s economy continues to transition from one based in industrial manufacturing to one more dependent on highly skilled and educated workers, many of our people will continue to struggle to find good-paying jobs.  Those who have exhausted their savings or were part of the mortgage foreclosure crisis often face a long road to financial security.

Healthcare costs

Spiraling healthcare costs is the hunger gap’s next big cause. Last year, a U.S. Census Bureau study showed the effect that out-of-pocket health care costs have on poverty. These costs, which are not currently part of the official poverty measurement, drove an additional 10 million people into poverty in 2010. A study by Harvard researchers found that medical bills prompt more than 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies.

Loss of a partner

Finally, the loss of a partner through death or divorce can be financially devastating — especially when children are involved. According to the Census Bureau, there are approximately 13.7 million single parents in the United States, raising 21.8 million children — about one-quarter of the nation’s kids. More than one quarter of single mothers and 13 percent of single dads and their children live in poverty.

These three factors — unemployment, healthcare costs and the loss or lack of a spouse — have created a new normal in hunger. Record numbers of metro Detroiters don’t have enough to eat, and their need for emergency food is deeper and longer-term than in the past. Figures from the last several years show that:

  • The average amount of time metro Detroiters need ongoing emergency food assistance has tripled, from six to 18 months
  • Many emergency food providers have doubled or tripled their data base of clients served
  • The number of children living in food-insecure households in metro Detroit has grown to more than 317,000
  • The number of food insecure individuals is now more than 750,000.

The changing economy, rising health care costs and widespread poverty are not problems that will be solved quickly. But hunger is a problem that can be dealt with swiftly. Emergency food aid is an important part of the solution, along with safety net programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC and the National School Lunch Program. Coordination and cooperation among the network of emergency food providers is also an important component to ensure that we are maximizing our resources to provide as much food as possible to our hungry neighbors.

W. DeWayne Wells is the president of Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan and a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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