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Our Lives Have Changed: Pandemic pressure on rural food pantries put diabetic man in the hospital

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio

Millions of people are relying on food pantries during the pandemic. In rural spots Up North, that means long lines at cash-strapped facilities.

And that can be especially hard for people with diabetes.

As part of IPR's new series Our Lives Have Changed, meet a man whose life has been upended by the demand on food pantries.

Tom Mang comes to Logan's Landing a lot.

On a cloudy cold day in December, the 58-year-old is sitting on a park bench along Boardman Lake.

Tom is a burly guy wearing a bright yellow hunter’s cap with a silver goatee, and red cheeks beneath his glasses.

“I come down here, I’ll just sit here on one of these nice benches. I fell asleep here once," Tom said, adding he didn't know how long he was out.

"But there was a whole different group of people around me when I woke up,” he says laughing.

Tom is sitting with his walking stick, staring at some ducks and a swan gathered near the shore. 


Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Tom visits with some ducks, geese and a swan gathered near the shore.

“This place means peace to me, I come down here a lot and I just sit here and visit with the ducks and the swans and the geese,” Mang says.

Tom’s been coming here for years, but a lot more often during the pandemic. He says this place helps him get away from it all.

Tom's health

For the past decade, Tom has had lots of health problems. He’s diabetic and at one point he weighed over 300 pounds. Tom says he knew if he didn’t change something he would die.

So a few years ago, his walks along the Boardman turned into 5-10 mile trips to get his heart pumping.

On doctor’s orders he cut out processed foods with lots of salt, carbs or sugar. It worked: he lost around 60 pounds in less than 10 months.

A very strict diet

Careful management of your diabetes is essential if you're diabetic, so Tom says he's very particular about what he eats.

“They taught me to just shop the outside edge of the grocery store, the fresh vegetables, the real meat not processed, things like that,” he says.

Tom even avoids carrots and potatoes because he says they have too many carbs.

Fresh food costs more, but Tom doesn’t work. He’s on disability after problems with his eyes sapped some of his vision. Eye problems are a common side-effect of diabetes.

On his fixed-income Tom would go to food pantries to get what he couldn’t afford at the grocery store.

But ― as a precaution ― most have stopped letting people come inside to browse.

This is happening in pantries across the country, especially in rural areas. They usually have less space, less money for fresh food and older volunteers than metropolitan counterparts.

Tom is able to get some pre-packaged food from the pantries. But he says most of it is things he can’t eat like canned soup or macaroni & cheese.

"The last time I went I got a bag with maybe 100 things in it, and out of it I could use two," Tom says. "So I give the rest to my neighbors. You don’t want it to go to waste."

"I can't be mad about it because I can't change it." -Tom Mang

Elaine Taule with the Father Fred Foundation knows Tom and says they accommodate diabetics, but there’s only so much they can do during the pandemic.

Taule says Father Fred has 40 volunteers right now when they normally have over 200. And demand at food pantries is way up, so some items aren’t always available.

“We’re trying to do our very very best, we have pivoted and changed, and I think we’re doing a really good job."

"Is it perfect? No,” Taule says.

"I just can't."

Even small hiccups can have serious consequences for Tom. He is now spending more and more of his limited income on food at the grocery store.

Now Tom says he has to buy cheap food that may end up shortening his life. His health has already worsened. Tom was back in the hospital with heart problems a few weeks ago.

“My heart rate was running 140, 150 beats a minute. But my doctor was very sharp and he caught it, and he probably saved me from having a stroke,” Tom says.

Tom expects more hospital trips in the coming months if this food situation keeps up. He’s worried that means more medical bills.

"I can't pay it. I just can't. I have to pay my rent, I have to feed myself."

Tom doesn’t have any solutions. Now he sounds exhausted.

“But I can’t be mad about it because I can’t change it. I’ve tried every route that I can travel, I’ve been on the phone, I’ve searched this and that," he says.

"I don’t know if it makes sense, but I’ve kind of turned a lot of the emotions off."

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
The view from Tom's favorite spot at Logan's Landing.

'Peaceful Exposures Photography'

Tom’s saving grace during the pandemic has been his walks along the Boardman. He runs a nature photography blog called Peaceful Exposures Photography.

“I look for the unique things that people don’t normally see. The way the sunlight shines on something and makes it stand out. Something the average person that walked by may have never seen,” Tom says.

Tom’s vision will likely never be 100 percent. He says he can see well enough to legally drive, but it could get worse.

Still, on many days you’ll find him looking out at the Boardman watching the ducks, swans and the geese.

He might be sitting on that park bench in Logan’s Landing. You’ll know him by his camera and walking stick.

“I could go blind tomorrow so I’ve learned to enjoy what I see today."

Stay tuned for more stories in IPR's new series on the coronavirus pandemic 'Our Lives Have Changed.'