Hunger hasn’t taken a break during COVID-19. If anything, it has spread its gnawing further than ever as families experience job loss or hour reductions. But if hunger has not taken a break, neither has the Gleaners School Food Mobile Pantry, as the pantry has fought back by providing additional assistance locally.
The pantry made its latest stop in New Baltimore on Feb. 3 and is scheduled for return engagements through Feb. 17. The pantry is available from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at North Shore Church, located at 51028 Base St. in New Baltimore. It provides free nutritious, healthy food, including 30 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh milk, whole grains and lean protein. Specific items vary from distribution date to distribution date. Participating families also receive healthy recipes and nutrition information.
“From Gleaners, we have produce like you would find at this time of year, potatoes and onions and apples. And that is what sets Gleaners apart from the rest is the produce,” North Shore Church Rev. Randy Voelkert said. “There is fresh produce, but also canned stuff and frozen meat.”
Voelkert said volunteers receive the food from Gleaners and separate it into the necessary bags for distribution to participating families.
“The mobile pantry is a drive-up, drive-thru operation. Families line up at the church, in their cars, and we load them up as they drive through,” he said.
Participants respond to a few basic questions asked by volunteers at the distribution prior to receiving food, as is required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, such as social distancing and masks, are required to be followed by all volunteers and pantry recipients.
The pantry operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with no registration required. Vehicles sometimes line up at the church as early as 11:30 a.m. on a distribution date to secure a place in line.
“No appointment required. Just get in line. We will give food away until we run out,” Voelkert said.
Matt Friedman, a public relations representative for Gleaners, said the organization has partnered with North Shore Church and Anchor Bay School district in hosting the school food mobile pantry for years. But as has been the case with many locations for Gleaner’s service areas in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties, the New Baltimore mobile food pantry location has seen an increase in need since COVID-19 began.
“In all of our regions, there has been more mobile food distribution since the pandemic,” Friedman said.
Since about April 2020, visits of the pantry to North Shore Church have increased from one to two times per month.
“They (Gleaners) initially asked if they could come and do a special distribution. I think it was a couple of weeks after one we just had in March. Then after that, they asked if we were interested in doing it two times per month thereforeward,” Voelkert said. “We made sure we had enough volunteers to do it.”
Each distribution provides between 100 and 150 families with food. Specific distribution dates are set by Gleaners.
Voelkert said that in 2019 prior to the pandemic, the church distribution location would see about 100 families or less on distribution dates, and if any food remained, it was donated elsewhere. Since the pandemic began in 2020, however, demand has sometimes exceeded supply, and no excess has been available. The food for about 100 families is often gone in less than an hour, Voelkert said.
Voelkert also said that if families remain when the Gleaners supply has been exhausted on a given distribution date, the church pulls items from its own food pantry to help supplement. Even with this additional help, occasionally the turnout has been so large that some families have had to be turned away and referred to another local church pantry.
“There are a lot of people today who have not been in need before. It is new for them and scary, and they are thankful at the same time,” Voelkert said.
JoAnn Gartin, the homeless student liaison for the Anchor Bay School District, said every few months Gleaners sends flyers to the district listing the upcoming month of mobile food pantry dates.
“I forward these emails to all building office managers so they can post it,” Gartin said. “I also forward them to Anita Banach, who is our district communications director. Anita takes the fliers I send her and includes them in our district newsletter that goes out to all of our families.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gleaners has been committed to following all health and safety protocols related to COVID-19, Friedman said.
The mission of Gleaners Community Food Bank is to provide households with sufficient, nutritious food and related resources. Gleaners was co-founded in 1977 by Gene Gonya in Detroit. The organization collects donations from grocers, retailers, local gardens, through food drives and through local manufacturers and other sources. Gleaners’ volunteers, staff, donors and others collect and sort the food for distribution.
Gleaners distributes food to 534 partner soup kitchens, shelters and pantries in five counties. The partner agencies distribute the food. Headquartered in Detroit, Gleaners operates five distribution centers in five counties, including Macomb. Each year, Gleaners distributes over 45 million pounds of food.
For more information about upcoming Gleaners food pantry dates, times and locations, go to gcfb.org/mobiles.
Nicole Tuttle is a freelance reporter for MediaNews Group.