TRAVERSE CITY — Area food pantries report a generous helping of support through the Christmas holiday, but the coordinator of the Northwest Food Coalition is concerned about a 50 percent-plus increase in the number of people served across the region in 2013.
In 2012, area pantries, meal programs and baby pantries fed 281,000 people, said Val Stone, who keeps coalition statistics. By November 2013, the count stood at 429,000, a 52 percent increase.
She estimated last week that December's count will bring the total to 467,000.
Some people are counted more than once because area pantries distribute food in several different ways, she said. For instance, one pantry may give out three days' worth of food in one family visit and two days' food in another visit, while a community meal program feeds one meal per person.
The one thing they have in common is people.
The numbers still provide a picture of a food-needy population because area pantries have used the same counting method for almost two decades.
The statistics indicate several things to Stone, a long-time area human services worker who also works part time as Salvation Army case worker.
“The numbers show that people aren’t getting enough work hours to supply all the needs they have," she said. "Prices have grown more than wages and fixed incomes. Seniors are getting a 1.5 percent increase in Social Security, but that doesn’t take into consideration the extra cost of gas, heating fuel and all the essentials.
"The reality is that the majority of jobs in our area are low-pay service jobs and people often need to often work two jobs."
But she also sees good news. More churches and people in the community are making sure food is given to the pantries, she said. New pantries also have taken root because of the need.
The "bright shining star" in area food programs is the start three years ago of Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan, she said. Also a Goodwill program, the agency's three refrigerated trucks pick up unused fresh food and beverages from area groceries, restaurants, bakeries and deliver it to pantries, shelters and community meals.
By late November, Food Rescue had transported almost 3.6 million pounds, or 1,783 tons, in the five-county area. According to federal food standards, one pound of food equals one nutritious meal.
The 19-year-old Northwest Food Coalition, housed at Goodwill, is comprised of 34 pantries, seven baby pantries and 36 meal sites in Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.
Several pantries reported food and donation gifts this season.
“We’ve had a wonderful outpouring of generosity during the Thanksgiving and Christmas giving season," said Joan O'Neill, spokesman for the Father Fred Foundation, northern Michigan's largest food pantry.
Benzie Shores District Library donated hundreds of pounds of food to Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, continuing a 20-year tradition of erasing fines for library patrons who bring in non-perishable grocery items from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
“Peanut butter and soup seem to be the most popular items,” library director Cathy Carter said. “When people hear about this option to pay their fine, we often get lots more food than the dollar value owed.”
A combination of shortened hours at larger pantries and the fact that Christmas fell on Wednesday this year caused a run on some of the area's smaller pantries, as well as Goodwill’s Emergency Meals Program, said Leah Bagdon McCallum, a Goodwill program director.
“We had calls from local pantries that they were out of food, and we did our best to ensure nobody went hungry,” she said. “Every person hungry person who turned to Goodwill for food was helped.”
The program provided prepared, nutritious scratch-cooked meals available to neighbors, she said. The meals are made using fresh local food gathered by Food Rescue.
It took three pickup trucks one day last week to transport more than 750 pounds of food collected New Year's Eve at the downtown Cherry Drop celebration to the Father Fred Foundation. Several businesses, schools, churches and other area organizations contributed collected food and cash donations in November and December.
The food and donations will see Father Fred into February when it holds its biggest fundraiser — the Frostbite Food Drive from Feb. 7-16. The two-week drive involves 500 volunteers. The goal is to fill three semi trailers that will be parked at Garfield Center.
The foundation recorded 14,762 pantry visits in 2013, serving an average 3.5 people per visit, O'Neill said. It provided enough food to feed 55,905 people, an 11 percent decrease from 2012, but still still 21 percent higher than during the 2010 recession and 38 percent higher than in 2009, she said.