ALPENA — Low-income residents won’t lose government food benefits just yet, but many Northeast Michigan residents still need help putting food on their tables, according to food vendors.
Michigan leaders have vowed to extend food stamp benefits past the April 15 deadline, by which time federal benefits were to drop to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels.
The current price hike in stores and gas stations means that even these extended benefits might not be enough for some to make ends meet.
Over the past two years, government food benefits and food availability have changed almost weekly, said Courtney Holmes, regional coordinator for the Eastern Michigan Food Bank.
In northeast Michigan, at least, one thing hasn’t changed: People need help getting food, Holmes said.
More people are asking food pantries for food than ever before, she said — and many of those people, in turn, are supporting and feeding each other, furthering the food pantries’ mission.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Holmes said. “Put food on the tables and encourage community.”
As reported cases of COVID-19 infection decline in northeast Michigan, the number of people coming to food giveaways at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Alpena has increased, said Cathy McClure, ranger coordinator to eat.
Those numbers had dropped amid the pandemic, with government officials offering larger food assistance benefits, allowing low-income people to buy more food at grocery stores.
Pantry regulars are now returning, perhaps because of soaring prices at grocery stores and gas stations, McClure said.
She also saw many new faces, including many seniors on fixed incomes who cannot keep up with the rising cost of groceries.
About 400 families received boxes of food at a local pop-up food distribution in March, the highest number to attend a local East Michigan Food Bank giveaway, Holmes reported.
That organization, which links 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 of the food bank.
Lately, however, the food bank can’t find many of the items they usually donate to residents. Meat is especially scarce, along with syrup, pancake mix and other items, McClure said.
Pantry suppliers had to fill in the gaps with what they had.
“Enough with the beans, already,” Burns said. “So many beans.”
Many regular customers often mingle as they line up in the St. Vincent parking lot, laughing, telling stories and swapping recipes, McClure said.
Such community extends beyond food collection, with some recipients hosting potlucks with other patrons and sharing extra food with the pantry to pass on to others in need.
Sometimes, McClure said, she may offer customers special giveaways, treats they couldn’t afford at the store, like the lobster tails, king crab legs and elk meat she gave out recently. .
Pantry workers can provide cooking tips for people who may not have learned to cook and connect customers with other community resources for help paying bills or fix a broken toilet, she said.
“It’s not a free handout in a row anymore,” Burns said. “We want to connect.”
A free box of food allows a struggling person to set aside a burden and focus on other needs, McClure said.
“Nobody should have to worry about how to feed their children,” she said.