Feeding America reports that in eastern Michigan, 41% of client households had to choose between housing and food, 42% reported having to choose between heat and food, and 26% had to choose between medicine and food.
Hunger is a monster; not a giant that crushes the populace, but a creeping, shadowy creature that nags at children while they’re at school, distracting them from their lessons. It saps the strength of fathers, steals the peace of mothers and stares at the elderly from lonely corners. Who will slay this insatiable beast? Enter our White Knight: The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Flint’s unsung hero, the Food Bank is a driving force in the fight against hunger. As a member of the Feeding America network, their mission is to end food deprivation in Flint, Genesee County, and all of eastern Michigan.
The sheer size of the Food Bank’s operations is staggering. Bill Kerr has been President of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan since 1994, and through his leadership, the agency has grown into the mega-distribution center that it is today. “I have made this cause my lifelong mission,” says Bill, “and I am one of the few who can say that I love what I do.”
Begun in 1981, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is today responsible for delivering over 22 million pounds of food to 417 partner agencies every year. Partner agencies include church pantries, soup kitchens, Boys & Girls Clubs, women’s shelters and “anyone who wants to provide food to the hungry,” says Tracy Fowler-Johnson, Development Manager. The Food Bank’s reach extends to 22 Michigan counties, from Genesee in the southwest to Huron in the thumb, all the way north to Cheboygan. Tracy says that many people do not understand exactly what the Food Bank does, and just how much they do. “When I first made my way here six years ago, I received a wake-up call,” Tracy remembers, “because I shared in a common misunderstanding that the Food Bank was a place for people to come and get a meal when they were hungry. On the contrary, we’re an institution collecting and then distributing food to our partner agencies, and they in turn disseminate this food to the people who need it.”
So how does the distribution process work? Agencies in outlying counties order from the “menu” of available groceries at the Food Bank. Their orders are loaded onto pallets and driven to designated drop sites throughout eastern Michigan for pick-up by partner agencies. Agencies in Genesee County pick up their pallets from the Food Bank’s location on Lapeer Road, and they have the added benefit of shopping from the non-bulk items gathered through food drives and other avenues. With 98 cents of every dollar going toward the program, Bill’s boast about efficiency is more than just talk: “We believe that when you invest in the Food Bank you invest in the community. The Board of Directors, the financial staff and I maintain strong fiscal controls so that we maximize return on the community’s investment and feed as many hungry people as we can.”
There are six avenues through which the Food Bank receives life-giving provisions. The first is through their parent institution, Feeding America. As a national organization, Feeding America acquires billions of pounds of foodstuffs through the federal government and through partnerships with behemoth corporate manufacturers and retailers such as Proctor & Gamble. They disperse the food to regional Food Banks such as the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, which use their network to pass it along. “You can really see the trickle-down effect here,” says Tracy. “The United States, unlike third-world nations, is not ‘food poor.’ There is a surplus of food, but it’s not in the hands of people who are hungry. We are part of a chain that moves food where it needs to be.” Just as Feeding America works on a national level to obtain food, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan also works on a regional scale with food manufacturing corporations, such as Kellogg, to acquire excess product.
In 2008, the Food Bank expanded their thinking to create the Food Recovery Program. Thanks to the Tom Landaal Food Recovery Center, which has a refrigeration room and a freezer room, the Food Bank has the ability to rescue perishable food before it expires. They’ve partnered with 64 grocery stores, such as Kroger, Wal-mart, Sam’s Club, Target and Meijer to collect perishables – produce, dairy, bread and meat – on their “sell-by” dates. “This food was literally being thrown in the garbage,” Tracy said, “and when we collect it, we prevent so much waste and we’re able to supply the hungry with nutritious options.” Other times, retailers give items to the Food Bank because of branding changes or marketing trends. “The products are perfectly usable, but for whatever reason they aren’t selling well: maybe the flavor wasn’t popular or the picture on the package is outdated,” Tracy said. “Last January,” Bill remembers, “we had boxes of Cap’n Crunch stacked to the ceiling because the captain on the package was still wearing a Santa suit!”
While community food drives both large and small also help stock the Food Bank, the newest food collection method comes right from the source: farmers. “Three years ago, we partnered with local farms to take their surplus produce: onions, watermelon, squash, etc. and so far, this effort has been wildly successful!” Tracy reports. Much of the surplus produce donated to the Food Bank was deemed unfit for commercial sale because of its appearance. Everyone knows that grocery stores have quality specifications for the produce they sell, but what many people don’t know is that there are aesthetic specs that fruits and veggies must meet, as well. “As consumers, we’ve been trained to imagine how a certain vegetable, say, a cucumber, should look: straight, dark green, wider in the middle and narrower at the end. But not every cucumber grows straight. The Food Bank benefits from these preconceptions because we receive all of the perfectly edible, but curved cucumbers!” said Bill.
In all, 6 million pounds of produce passed through the Food Bank last year, and while most of this was donated, one million pounds of produce was grown specifically for their operation. In conjunction with the Food Bank Council of Michigan, The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan participates in a program called Michigan Farm to Food. “We donate the operating cost for farmers to set aside a certain percentage of their crops for the Food Bank,” Bill says, “and we’ve seen an outpouring of generosity from local farmers who want to help feed the hungry.”
On September 26, the Food Bank hosted its annual Empty Bowls event, which Bill calls their biggest “friend-raiser.” Community members purchased tickets to an all-they-could-eat soup luncheon hosted inside the Food Bank facility. “When people come to Empty Bowls, they have an opportunity to see the scope and the magnitude of our effect on the community and to connect with our mission. Friendships are formed, and the folks attending the event today will be the ones supporting our mission tomorrow,” Bill says. This year, Empty Bowls raised in excess of $35,000, which helps fund the Food Bank’s far-seeing vision.
There isn’t room enough here for all the stories of the lives changed by the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Barbara Bye, Development Coordinator, says, “Food is energy, and when you see how great the need is, and how much we do to meet that need, you want to be involved. This organization, centered in one of the most economically challenged cities in the United States, is a shining example of what a Food Bank can be.” The energy that flows from the Food Bank’s headquarters on Lapeer Road helps fuel our city, our county, and 21 other counties in Michigan. “Our hope is that one day, we’ll have put ourselves out of business, because we will end hunger forever,” Tracy says.
Join the movement and help slay the hunger beast: check in with My City next month to learn about the Food Bank’s programs to feed the hungry, and get a sneak peek at their expansion plans!
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is hosting two events this month to raise donations for their mission to end hunger. You can help!
Reds, Whites and Brews
A strolling wine tasting event Friday, November 8 at the Sloan Museum in Flint
The Faith Game
A hockey challenge between U of M-Flint and Hope college November 23 at the Perani Event Center
Go online to fbem.org for more details!
PHOTOS BY TRACI TURNER
Are you interested in purchasing photos from this story? Go HERE and select the “Empty Bowls” category.