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When it comes to food, pantries work all year

By Becky McKendry
Capital News Service

LANSING — As food banks and food pantries across the state prepare for the challenges of the holiday season and talk of looming cuts to federal food benefits, there is one message they’d like you to carry well into the new year: People are hungry year-round.

“The holidays are a busy time in volunteering and donating,” said Anne Schenk, senior director of advancement at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan in Detroit. “But sometimes people forget that we have these needs all year.”

Schenk said volunteers and donations tend to taper off in spring and plateau during the summer. That can be especially challenging, as donations are often in high demand when children are on spring and summer breaks — and not receiving meals at school.

“People tend to think about the hungry during holidays,” said Kim Gladstone, external relations manager of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. “And we are so grateful and appreciate that, but people will also still need food when March and April hit.”

That said, food banks and pantries are girding for the unmistakable challenges of the holiday season.

Schenk says although volunteers and donations increase overall during the holidays, the season tends to see slightly higher demand and its own set of unique problems.

“Some of our regular volunteers are retired so they head south during the winter,” said Waverly Knight, assistant director of Northwest Food Pantry in Grand Rapids, which feeds about 150 families a week.

Access of West Michigan in Grand Rapids, which acts as a parent organization for Northwest Food Pantry, has multiple programs to help meet such needs through and beyond the holidays.

At the beginning of October, right before the holiday season hits, Access holds a food drive throughout Kent County. Access also provides outreach and education efforts, such as poverty simulation experiences where participants put themselves in the shoes of someone struggling to make ends meet, and hosts special programs and events, like the Holiday Giving Network.

“The Holiday Giving Network allows you to ‘adopt’ a family of a particular size and provide them with their Christmas dinner,” Knight said. “You do the shopping and get to personally deliver it to the families.”

Northwest and Access have also found ways to make up for gaps in the Holiday Giving Network program.

“Individuals and families of two tend to be forgotten,” Knight said. “Everyone thinks of children, so individuals and couples can sort of get lost.”

Knight said she uses cash donations to throw a holiday party at the pantry for those not  “adopted,” so that no one is left out.

“My first year here we had 80 families,” she said. “And they were so surprised at how big it was and how much food we had. They forgot they were at the food pantry.”

Something that could also help food banks and pantries is for donors to understand the benefits of cash donations.

Food pantries and banks alike welcome food donations. But banks — which also purchase food and personal care products for their member pantries — use cash donations to purchase in bulk and stretch dollars further.

“We can get food that you might buy at the store for much lower than retail,” Schenk said. “We’re able to provide about three meals for every dollar, and that can make a big difference.”

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