Food insecurity in Upper Michigan: Experts explain why it’s more than just hunger

According to Feeding America West Michigan, about 40,000 people across the U.P. are food insecure. That’s roughly one in every eight people in the Upper Peninsula.
Published: Sep. 5, 2023 at 6:44 PM EDT
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UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. (WLUC) - Food insecurity is something that can impact anyone.

Feeding America West Michigan is just one of the resources available to families.

“I can’t accept the fact that any of us are one or two life events away from needing help,” said Ken Estelle, president and CEO of Feeding America West Michigan.

Feeding America West Michigan works every day to fight food insecurity. Being food insecure isn’t just being hungry; it’s not having reliable access to nutritional food.

“That’s why the mobile program is focused on fruit, vegetable, dairy and protein,” said Estelle. “Trying to get that healthy food because we know that if you have limited resources, you’re going to go to the store and you’re going to buy the most you can get with the dollars you have, and if you go to the grocery store that’s going to be processed food.”

According to Feeding America West Michigan, about 40,000 people across the U.P. are food insecure. That’s roughly one in every eight people in the Upper Peninsula.

In 2021, Feeding America West Michigan says it served 160,000 families. In 2022, that rose to 202,000 – a 27% increase.

“I’ve talked to many people that said, ‘I have $10 for next week and I have no idea how I’m going to feed my family next week.’ That puts a lot of stress on the family,” said Estelle.

A growing number of households in these statistics are part of a population we might not normally associate with food insecurity. That population is called “ALICE.” It stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

“What you may think of is ‘Well that person just made a lot of mistakes’ or ‘They’re not careful with their money’ or maybe ‘They’re lazy’ or ‘They don’t have a job.’ And again, what we found is almost all of those stereotypes are not true,” said Estelle.

These families might not be under the poverty level but often live paycheck to paycheck.

“Their income threshold isn’t quite high enough to meet many of those daily needs that they have, things like food and housing and health care, child care,” said Tammy Rosa, the food programs manager for UPCAP.

This can make it difficult to afford healthy food, or families might need to go without food in order to pay for other things. In the U.P., this represents about 37,683 households.

“What they’ll tell you is, ‘I have a choice. I can either pay my rent or I can get groceries. So, if I don’t pay my rent, I lose my house. So I got to pay the rent but maybe I can get half the groceries I need because that’s flexible,’” said Estelle.

When you can’t get the nutrition your body needs, it can lead to health problems.

“Lower, decreased nutrition can also contribute to long-term chronic health issues, and so that just plays right back into healthcare costs and it becomes kind of a vicious circle,” said Rosa.

Part of the challenge in rural areas like the U.P. is accessibility.

“There’s not as many resources available. You can’t just walk down the street, the next block, and find a food pantry or something,” said Estelle.

Feeding America West Michigan says when it puts on mobile food drives, workers often see multiple families in one car. For them, it’s one way to get the most out of their resources.