Crisis Management

Crisis Management

A sudden "tidal wave" of need means new challenges for one of the country's oldest food-rescue agencies.

The New York Times may still be referring to Ann Arbor as “a Rust Belt oasis,” but the University of Michigan’s hometown has taken a hard hit along with the auto industry and the rest of the country. The closing of a major Pfizer R&D facility last year accentuated a trend of waning affluence in Ann Arbor and the rest of Washtenaw County—a region in which the 14.5-percent poverty level already exceeded national averages before the recession took form last fall.

“Michigan has been suffering for a while,” says Eileen Spring, president/CEO of Ann Arbor-based Food Gatherers, Washtenaw County’s nonprofit umbrella agency for food rescue and distribution. Spring says she’s now seeing a “tidal wave” of need locally. One example: Food Gatherers sent its annual solicitations to past financial supporters in November 2008 and received several apologetic letters from people who said they can’t help out this year because they’ve lost jobs and now are going to food pantries themselves. It’s time to come up with new strategies to feed the hungry in Washtenaw County. Food Gatherers, which was one of the first food-rescue agencies in the country, is taking on the challenge with brio.

In 2008, Food Gatherers received funding from the local United Way, as well as the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and the Knight Foundation, to survey its agency partners and consumer clients. Among the findings: County families have dramatic rates of food insecurity. Daily consumption of fruits and vegetables is well below healthy levels, and barriers to access confound the problem. Among households surveyed that are not receiving food stamps, nearly three-quarters would likely be eligible.

Food Gatherers is now working on plans to support efficient collaboration among the multiple agencies that make up the local safety net. The goal is “to significantly increase food security for low-income residents and align these efforts with a larger vision of community food security for Washtenaw County.” A working definition of food security at the community level is widespread access for local citizens to a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet obtained through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.

These are big plans for an organization that started small, as an idea in the mind of Paul Saginaw. Once a student in human nutrition at the UM School of Public Health, Saginaw is a co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen and its Community of Businesses. Back in the mid-1980s, when only a few food-rescue groups were picking up overruns from restaurants in cities like New York, D.C., and Seattle, Saginaw commissioned a sandwich maker on his staff at Zingerman’s to look into the feasibility of starting something similar in Ann Arbor.

In the first year of operation—with one staffer, a borrowed pickup truck, and an attic office—Food Gatherers transported about 2,400 pounds of food. Today the nonprofit has a spacious new warehouse, five vehicles, 15 staffers, and a corps of 4,500 volunteers who transport an average of six tons of rescued food per day to food pantries, homeless shelters, and low-income housing and agencies. Food Gatherers is the coordinating hub that gleans food from 300 donor sources for 150 organizations that provide for more than 7,000 meals a day in Washtenaw County.

Need has certainly increased along with capacity. Food has become more expensive—especially healthy food. Yet there has been a drop in available food assistance to food banks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities program (partly because farmers can make so much money from the growing ethanol industry, which is eating up surpluses of corn and other crops). Recent decades have also seen a decrease in donations from supermarkets due to their improved “just in time” inventory tracking systems.

Some examples of how Food Gatherers has been replacing old supply streams with new ones that better serve community-specific needs include:

  • A Summer Feeding Program for kids that was funded by the USDA through the Michigan Department of Education, Con-Agra, and Idol Gives Back (yes, that “idol,” as in American Idol’s charitable foundation);
  • A “Shopper’s Pantry” where nonprofit agencies that partner with Food Gatherers can pick up food for their programs, and either turn it into meals that they serve to their clients or distribute it directly to households that create their own meals;
  • A local women’s correctional facility that grows beautiful produce, such as tomatoes and cantaloupes, that can be distributed to the needy on the day they’re picked (other “grow your own” plans are in the works).

Food Gatherers has also collaborated with partner agencies to provide several job-training and internship opportunities for at-risk and formerly homeless youth, including certified culinary and food-safety skills to help them secure employment in the food industry.

It takes creativity and determination to adapt to the changing food landscape, and that’s where Food Gatherers seems to shine. Karen Peterson, the new director of the SPH Human Nutrition Program, relishes opportunities to work with Food Gatherers. She says it’s an amazing example of a whole food system that deals with a range of issues her students study in class, from food safety to nutritional values. “Food Gatherers thinks in terms of networks—they’re very integrated, very resourceful,” she observes.

SPH students and staffers are among the volunteers that help Food Gatherers pack, sort, prepare, and deliver food to needy clients in Washtenaw County. SPH student interns like Tina Sang (see sidebar at right) embark on mutually beneficial relationships with the organization. And SPH student groups regularly help out by collecting, packing, and distributing food or preparing dinner at the Community Kitchen, a program in Ann Arbor’s Delonis Center, a shelter for homeless adults.

In addition to its established food distribution responsibilities, Food Gatherers is taking on its new strategic role locally at the same time it adjusts to shifts in the major assumptions that sustained it through its early years. Assumptions that excess food would always be available from agricultural and commercial overruns, for example. That more is better, that bread is the staff of life, and that any kind of food that can fill stomachs will allay the problems of hunger, poverty, and need.

“Bread is actually one of our greatest challenges,” groans Missy Orge, director of outreach and training. Although frequently offered in donations, “it goes stale quickly, and it’s hard to manage,” she explains. Small food pantries at churches, for example, don’t have freezers to extend bread’s life. Many bread products don’t have much nutritional value for the calories they contain.

After Missy Orge came and talked to their Community Nutrition class last fall, several members of the SPH student organization Student Advocates for Nutrition decided to have a benefit bake sale to benefit Food Gatherers. They raised $150 while also mirroring some food-value and client-choice issues that Food Gatherers deals with on a regular basis. Healthy flax, apple, and red-currant muffins were offered alongside standard chocolate chip cookies, for example. The SPH population happily went for both.

“Sometimes medical or nursing students come on tours here and want to know why, if we can control the food we serve, we don’t completely control nutritional value,” Orge says. She explains it’s not so simple—a whole spectrum of issues come into play and compromises are needed. “We’re no longer about just mac and cheese, but neither are we all tofu and brown rice. Rather, whole wheat pasta in the macaroni and cheese works for us. People with stressed lives need comfort food as well as nutrition.”

As it moves forward in its third decade, Food Gatherers is working to get fresh, nutritious food to families in a structured series of innovations. They plan to expand work with community partners to gain more control of the donated food supply, and to buy and grow better food. They also want to im-prove people’s access to healthy food through more efficient distribution markets and food-stamp advocacy.

“We’re not here just to save waste,” President/CEO Spring explains. “We’re not rescuing every bagel. We’re connecting the dots between food and health.” People who don’t understand that, she says, “are unaware of the vastness of what we do.”

Food Gatherers facts:

  • Community Kitchen nutrition goal: address health problems among the homeless such as diabetes and hypertension by decreasing fat and sodium and increasing fiber, calcium, and other vitamins
  • Food-drive needs: high-protein items, cereal, kid-friendly foods, baby formula, soups, stews, canned meat/fish, monetary donations, business partnerships
  • Donation don’ts: no glass items, dented cans, opened packages, spoiled goods (if it’s on the floor, it’s not food anymore)
  • Most memorable donation: a 65-pound chocolate Santa won by a little boy. He got to keep the head; much of the rest became goodie bags of chocolate chunks distributed to detox programs—because people in substance-abuse recovery really appreciate sweets.

Article and Tina Sang photos by Mary Beth Lewis

Lead photo by Peter Smith

Summer Lunches and Saturdays with Seniors: One Intern’s Story

Tina Sang spent 912 hours last year as an intern and volunteer at Food Gatherers. She planned meals, taught lessons, and assessed the nutritional content of the food served at a neighborhood camp’s free summer-lunch program. She distributed food to housing centers and gained the trust of some Chinese-speaking seniors.

At food pickup“They had questions about where the food was coming from,” Sang recalls. Was it the government? The supermarket? “And they wanted to know why it’s different food this month than it was last month. I had to explain how donated food comes from many sources.”

Sang is an immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in San Francisco. She’s a community-organizing major at the School of Social Work at the same time she’s at SPH, working toward an MPH in health behavior and health education. She hopes someday to make a career of working with Chinese-American populations in the U.S., “to help solve problems they identify in their communities.”

During her internship, she did pretty much anything Food Gatherers asked her to do, from survey as-sessment to spaghetti boiling. And it couldn’t have been appreciated more. Food Gatherers President/CEO Eileen Spring says that not every intern or volunteer comes with the right combination of attitude and skills to become indispensable as the Ann Arbor-based network expands its community food security mandate. But Sang did, and so do many other students, partly because of “the glasses they bring,” Spring says.

“Public health students have the ability to understand situations at many levels, community and national, and they’ve taught us a lot,” Spring says. “They’ve helped us save steps, and trained us in looking at data in new programs like our summer feeding,” which aims to extend the publicly funded lunches available to low-income children during the school year. Without nutritionists or data-crunchers in its barebones staff of 15, Food Gatherers might have trouble proving nutritional and other requirements for federal funding. Interns like Tina Sang help make it possible.

Sang, who has a calm manner and mature sensitivity to cultural issues, has continued to work with Food Gatherers on the second Saturday of every month. She and nine other volunteers pack bags and distribute food to residents at Parkway Meadows on the north side of Ann Arbor. Sang helps the Chinese-speaking senior citizens she has befriended when they are confronted with puzzling new items.
Tina Sang
“Pepperoni seemed really unusual to them,” she recalls. “They asked me if they could stir-fry it. I had to think for a moment, then said sure, but it might be kind of salty.”

Pepperoni isn’t a common ingredient for the 275 bags of groceries that go to Parkway Meadows each month, says Marti Lachapell, director of agency relations for Food Gatherers. But getting a variety of foods to clients is important, and some unfamiliar foods often accompany the staples like peanut butter and eggs.

Having Sang along at a distribution site that has suffered in the past from a “clash of cultures” is ex-tremely helpful, Lachapell says. “Food is power, and there’s a certain amount of desperation that sets in at times. We were very relieved when Tina decided to stay on to help. She loves it, and they love her.” < M.B.L.

 "Web extra" spaghetti recipe for 50 or 100 (PDF)