COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. – The Michigan National Guard has come to the rescue of a Michigan food bank that was struggling to serve needy families during the COVID-19 pandemic without its volunteers.
Feeding America West Michigan typically uses volunteers to fill food orders in 40 of the state's 83 counties, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most were asked to stay home.
"We're not accepting volunteers at this time due to their safety," said Francesca Almonte, reclamation coordinator for the food bank. "The demographics of our volunteers are between the ages of 65-75 and to have them here is putting them at risk."
"We would rather have the National Guard come in here and help us take care of things in the warehouse such as repacking food items, helping with our picking team, or on our mobile pantries to help distribute food," she said.
During the outbreak of the coronavirus, the food bank has seen a surge in food orders. The response from the Michigan Guard has exceeded expectations.
"On the first day, the Guard members worked about 27 man-hours and produced about 60,000 pounds of product, which was sent back out to the community," said Almonte. "The work the National Guard is doing here is being put on plates the next day, and the need is being met almost immediately."
"Our orders have doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, so the National Guard coming in has been a huge help," she said.
The increase in orders would normally overwhelm a food bank.
"With the amount of people being out of work right now, the food bank has seen an increase of volume and are doing two to three times as much than they normally do with less than half of the volunteers they normally have," said 2nd Lt. Hunter Davidson, platoon leader, 1433rd Engineer Company (SAPPER), 507th Engineer Battalion, 177th Military Police Brigade, Michigan Army National Guard. "We've been asked to come out here and help fill those gaps and do our best to help keep the food bank as prepared as possible."
Putting together food boxes requires a team to come together, and that is what the Michigan National Guard has done.
"A lot of other food pantries are closed, so we are preparing emergency food boxes so that families that normally receive food from the food bank can still get them," said Davidson. "In just a couple of hours, we filled just over 130 food boxes, around 4,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,200 pounds of Pop-Tarts, and prepared close to 60,000 pounds of food orders for vendors, along with washing and sanitizing about 600 bottles of juice for the food boxes."
The Soldiers are also packing potatoes and putting together 25-pound food boxes to be distributed to families, he said.
"This is what most of us signed up for when we joined the National Guard," said Davidson. "We wanted to be able to give back directly to our communities, and I am proud to be here to help put these food boxes together so they can get to where they are needed."
Almonte said she was grateful for the National Guard's support.
"I have been in this position for three years, and you build a relationship in a family with everyone around here, including our volunteers who punch out 300,000 pounds a month of product," said Almonte. "To have the National Guard here and pushing out numbers that are just incredible – numbers I have never seen here before."