ALPENA — Low-income residents won’t lose government food benefits just yet, but many Northeast Michiganders still need help putting food on their tables, food providers say.
Michigan leaders have promised to extend food stamp benefits past an April 15 deadline on which federal benefits were set to drop to pre-coronavirus-pandemic levels.
Current rising prices at stores and gas stations mean even those extended benefits may not be enough for some to make ends meet.
For the past two years, government food benefits and food availability have changed almost weekly, said Courtney Holmes, regional coordinator for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
In Northeast Michigan, at least, one thing hasn’t changed — people need help getting food, Holmes said.
More people are requesting food from food pantries than ever before, she said — and many of those people, in turn, support and feed one another, furthering the mission of food pantries.
“That’s what we try to do,” Holmes said. “Put food on tables and encourage community.”
As reported cases of COVID-19 infection decrease in Northeast Michigan, the number of people coming to food giveaways at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Alpena has climbed, said Cathy McClure, pantry coordinator.
Those numbers had dropped mid-pandemic as government officials offered larger food assistance benefits, allowing people with low incomes to purchase more food at grocery stores.
Food pantry regulars are returning now, possibly because of spiking prices at grocery stores and gas stations, McClure said.
She’s seen many new faces, too, including many older people on fixed incomes who can’t keep up with the climbing cost of groceries.
About 400 families received food boxes at a local March pop-up food distribution, the highest number to attend a local giveaway of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, Holmes reported.
That organization, which connects the St. Vincent store and other food pantries to resources, hasn’t felt the pinch of higher prices too much, said Melissa Burns, regional manager for the food bank.
Lately, though, the food bank can’t find many of the items it usually gives residents. Meat is especially scarce, along with syrup, pancake mix, and other items, McClure said.
Food pantry providers have had to fill in the gaps with what they have.
“Enough with the beans, already,” Burns said. “So many beans.”
Many repeat customers often mingle while waiting in line in the St. Vincent parking lot, laughing, telling stories, and swapping recipes, McClure said.
Such community extends beyond food pick-up, with some recipients organizing potlucks with other customers and sharing extra food with the pantry to pass along to others in need.
Sometimes, McClure said, she gets to offer customers special donations, treats they couldn’t afford at the store, like the lobster tails, king crab legs, and elk meat she distributed recently.
Food pantry workers can give cooking tips to people who may not have learned cooking skills and connect customers with other resources in the community to get help paying the bills or fixing a broken toilet, she said.
“It’s not a free handout in a line anymore,” Burns said. “We want to connect.”
A box of free food allows a struggling person to set aside one burden and focus on other needs, McClure said.
“Nobody should have to worry about how to feed their kids,” she said.