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Northern Michigan schools and food pantries try to feed those impacted by COVID pandemic

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
Employees of Benzie County Central Schools mobilized to feed families impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan rises nearly every day. As the pandemic worsens, putting food on the table is getting harder for some people in rural communities.

Now school districts are rushing to feed students that relied on school lunches, and food pantries in northern Michigan are trying to feed the rest.

But many worry if the pandemic stretches on for months, they may not be able to get food to those who need it. 

Schools are closed, but cafeterias are open

Public schools in Michigan are closed for at least the next few weeks after an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
District employees came to work Tuesday despite schools being closed across the state.

But that didn't stop around 40 employees of Benzie Central Schools from reporting to work Tuesday morning. They rushed across the high school parking lot loading thousands of meals on to the district’s fleet of buses.

In 2018, over 700,000 students in Michigan relied on free or reduced cost meals at school. Benzie County Central Schools is one of many districts still offering that food, but it’s one of few that’s actually driving it to families.

Each bus was packed with about 240 prepared breakfasts and lunches to deliver.

As buses left the school, a mother and child that live across the street stood at the edge of their driveway holding a sign that read “Thank you.”

Feeding families

Benzie Central is geographically one of the largest school districts in the state. For socially isolating during the pandemic, Superintendent Matt Olson says that distance is a good thing.

"The problem is is that ground creates a barrier for a lot of our families," Olson said.

Olson says parts of the district are rural, low-income and far from big grocery stores. The school district has  held food drives before but many families didn’t have the time or resources to make it in person.

"We figured if we’re gonna do this the only way we're going to be successful is to get it to them where they are," Olson said.

Despite warnings to avoid crowds and face-to-face contact, many of the district’s employees like Tina Page are unfazed. Page has been a bus driver for Benzie Schools for about five years.

"They're awesome kids, and I’m doing a good cause, and I’m healthy and not worried about it," Page said.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Tina Page is a bus driver for Benzie schools and says she isn't afraid of working with students during the pandemic.

Crates of food crammed between seats on Page’s bus rattle against each other as she drives on dirt roads across Benzie County. Along the route, Page and Rebecca Frieholtz, another district employee, gave out three days worth of food to 51 children in one morning.

The district as a whole gave out over 4,000 meals Tuesday morning. They plan on doing this for another week while schools are closed. 

Olson says they will try to keep delivering food after that, even if schools stay closed longer.

"I see this as a pretty vital service, right up there with keeping grocery stores open and keeping pharmacies open and running. This is getting kids fed," Olson said.

Food pantries hope to fill in the gap

In a pandemic like this, food pantries in rural communities are also stretched thin.

The Northwest Food Coalition says they helped feed over 220,000 people across six northern Michigan counties last year. Coordinator Val Stone says they’re already seeing more people show up to pantries and meal sites.

"The need is going to intensify as people run out of supplies that they might have in their pantries. Local pantries are aware of that, the school system’s aware of it and there’s efforts on their part to provide some kind of food in some way," Stone said.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Rebecca Frieholtz hands out meals to children in Benzie County.

But COVID-19 has already changed how a lot of food pantries work. Some have started delivering food or provide drive-thru options to avoid hand-to-hand contact. And Stone says these organizations normally rely on retirees and senior citizens for help, but those older adults face a higher risk from the disease.

"A lot of the pantries have lost volunteers, voluntarily, or scaled back their efforts on how they’re delivering the food to the clients," Stone said.

Stone says more people have offered to work or bring in food, but health and sanitation concerns limit what they can take.

For now she says they’re waiting on more guidance and potentially money from the federal government to get more food to those in need.

If you're interested in helping the Northwest Food Coalition, you can find more information at their website.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.