Posted on August 14, 2009

Hunger Hits Detroit’s Middle Class

Steve Hargreaves, CNN, August 13, 2009


In this recession-racked town, the lack of food is a serious problem. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in conversations in Detroit. There isn’t a single major non-discount chain supermarket in the city, forcing residents to buy food from corner stores or discount chains. Often less healthy, less varied, or more expensive food.

As the area’s economy worsens–unemployment was over 16% in July–food stamp applications and pantry visits have surged.

Detroiters have responded to this crisis. Huge amounts of vacant land has led to a resurgence in urban farming. Volunteers at local food pantries have also increased.

But the food crunch is intensifying, and spreading to people not used to dealing with hunger. As middle class workers lose their jobs, the same folks that used to donate to soup kitchens and pantries have become their fastest growing set of recipients.


{snip} Across metro Detroit, social service agencies are reporting a huge spike in demand for food assistance.

Gleaners, an agency that distributes excess food donated from food processors, says their distribution is up 18% from last year. Michigan Department of Human Services, which handles federal food assistance like food stamps, WIC checks and such, has seen a 14% spike in applications since October. Calls to the United Way’s help line have tripled in the last year.


The changing face of hunger

There have been plenty of people struggling in Detroit for a long time. What makes this recession different is the type of people coming in. It’s no longer just the homeless, or the really poor.

Now it’s middle class folks who lost their $60,000-a-year auto job, or home owners who got caught on the wrong side of the real estate bubble.

Many of these people have never navigated the public assistance bureaucracy before, and that makes getting aid to them a challenge.


To assist these newly hungry, Wells pointed to the United Way’s 211 program, where people can call the hotline and speak to an operator that guides them through a wide range of available social services.


Detroit responds

Actually running out of food doesn’t seem to be a problem, so far. In fact, because more people are being affected the response seems to be greater.


{snip} Food stamp allowances were increased 14% nationwide under the stimulus plan.

Detroiters are also helping themselves in smaller ways. Thanks to the dearth of big supermarkets in Detroit proper–a phenomenon largely attributed to lack of people–and plenty of vacant land, community gardening has caught on big.


Carmody [Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp.] is part of a group of people trying to bring healthy food to town. The efforts include setting up mobile produce stands around the city, working with convenience store owns to stock better produce, and trying to set up a program that allows food stamp recipients to spend twice as much money if they buy from a local farmer.

He says the food situation in Detroit is particularly depressing because the surrounding areas are chock full with some of the best eats around: Michigan grows some of the most varied crops in the nation, everything from apples and cantaloupes to peaches and watermelon. Windsor, just across the bridge, is the hydroponics capital of Canada. Artisan Amish farms are also close by in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Getting this food to Detroit, and getting Detroiters to buy it is the challenge. That’s where the urban farms come in.