This is no ordinary outing for Nina Sellars and her mother Sherie Sellars.
Nina pushes the cart overflowing with food towards the front of Fish & Loaves Community Food Pantry where volunteers are waiting to weigh her items. As Sherie exclaims with excitement over strawberries, bananas and other fresh fruit being added to her basket, Nina looks down at her 4-year-old son who is twirling around her hip, asking for snacks.
Instead of noticing what’s in front of her, Nina instead takes note of what’s absent – the stress and anxiety that typically accompanies her on shopping trips. As she approaches the checkout counter, the tiny voice that has grown accustomed to questioning “Will we be able to afford this” or “Will we have to put something back” is silent.
Her son leaves her hip to inquire about a toy. With a nod from mom, he adds it to the cart.
“It’s nice not to have to say no,” Nina said. As food prices have risen in tandem with inflation, Nina and other families have faced increased food insecurity.
At least 449,300 individuals in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are food insecure, according to data from Feeding America.
And it’s not just food.
In southeastern Michigan, 39% of families struggle to afford their basic needs including food, housing, child care, health care, transportation and technology, according to the most recent ALICE report.
“We’re all feeling the pinch when it comes to the cost of basic needs, but for more than one out of every three families in our region this is leading to impossible choices, such as deciding between paying rent or putting food on the table,” said Emily Mueller, Basic Needs director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Before the pandemic, both Nina and her mother worked in RV sales positions that were dissolved when COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect.
“It’s been hard,” said Nina, who also has two other children at home. “I haven’t been able to find a job that pays enough for us to afford daycare. I’ve stayed home with the kids since the pandemic.”
With a single income, the family is barely getting by. Without help from Fish & Loaves, their situation would be much more difficult.
“Considering we can’t afford food right now, we’d be screwed without this help,” Nina said.
Pandemic-era assistance programs provided welcome relief to Nina and thousands of other ALICE households across Michigan. As supports including the increased Child Tax Credit and expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have ended, families are once again feeling pinched.
Michigan ALICE households with children were four times more likely to report that their children weren’t eating enough because they couldn’t afford enough food.
“We know that families like Nina’s throughout our community are struggling to make ends meet,” said Cassie Thierfelder, Advocacy and Government Relations director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “That’s why we advocate for policies that improve access to food like eliminating the SNAP Asset Test and providing free school meals to all public-school students in Michigan.”
“We’re so grateful that the state has made these huge leaps forward, but we know that there is still so much more work to do to make sure no family has to go without.”
Requests to United Way’s 2-1-1 helpline for help with food are up more than 30% over the last several months. Many food pantry partners are struggling to keep up with the growing need.
“Our food banks and pantries have been working in overdrive since the start of the pandemic and the need has not let up,” said Emily. “Now, with the end of many pandemic-era supports and near record high inflation, more and more families are turning to the emergency food system to meet their needs.”
Fish & Loaves has distributed 266,000 more pounds of food this year when compared to the same period in 2022. On a recent Fresh Market Saturday where the organization offers drive-up access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and milk, more than 700 cars joined the line between 9 a.m. and noon.
“These numbers were unheard of before the pandemic,” said Bob Cooper. “Prices have increased quite a bit for us too, so we’re having to get creative, but we have to do what we have to do.”
The team at Fish & Loaves relies on sales and strong partner relationships to help meet the community demand.
“We’re doing our part to ensure that no one goes hungry,” Bob said.
For Jae, a Navy veteran who was medically retired in 2013, Fish & Loaves provides much-needed respite – allowing her to check items from her list that she can no longer afford to buy at the store due to rising prices.
“People need extra help right now and they shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it,” Jae said. “When your income is limited, it’s not easy to make ends meet.”
One in 9 working-age veterans live in food insecure households, according to Feeding America. More than 1.2 million low-income veterans also rely on SNAP.
“You serve the country; that doesn’t always mean the country serves you,” Jae said.
United Way for Southeastern Michigan is committed to ensuring that households can access necessities and that children are thriving.
If you or someone you know needs food assistance, dial 2-1-1 today.