Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Food pantries prepare for winter months


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Ironwood - Area food pantries say the number of people in need is stable or growing depending on the types of services provided.

There has been a steady increase in demand for food and other services since the coronavirus pandemic in spring of 2019 and there does not appear to be signs of any federal relief in the near future, said the Rev. Roger Kolehmainen, program director and manager of Union Station, the food pantry ran by Restoration of the Branch Ministry with outreach into Gogebic County and Iron County Wisconsin.

"My biggest concern right now is that I don't see any immediate recovery in our economy and as a result I suspect that we are going to be relied on more in the future - even more than we have been right now," he said. "It is not a favorable picture. I wish I could say something more rosy and that all the needs are covered but the need is going to continually increase and I suspect there is going to be cutback in some of the government programs and you can see the sign of the economic times taking place which means there is going to be a greater need for these types of programs."

Union Station has kept up with the need for their Saturday distributions that are open to the region and the frequent Food for America distribution events for Michigan residents. 

The mission is always to serve the public, Kolehmainen said. Union Station was created in response to economic policies that create this need, he said.

"We wanted to be in place when a need like this surfaced so that we were going to be in a position to help," he said. "I commend the other food pantries. I tell you we are in this together and we are here for the public. We have all the greatest intentions and I just hope that we can meet the need."

The food pantries welcome food donations from the public, but say that cash donations allow them to purchase even more, he said. Donated dollars go further when food pantries and food banks use their nonprofit status to acquire food at reduced prices.

"The people and businesses in this area are very charitable and I am very impressed by the amount of giving and how people really care about their neighbors," Kolehmainen said. "This is a really special place to live."

Pat Livingston, manager of the Iron County Food Pantry in Montreal, said the distribution process is more cautious but that the clientele has not changed that much. The pantry is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays.

"We're basically holding our own just as much as we were before," she said. "We had a few more when we were doing curbside service who were probably out of county people that we also serve."

There have not been shortages with resources either, Livingston said, and she's thankful for that. The nonprofit pantry receives government supplements and purchases most items from Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank in Duluth.

The community donations have also been steady and strong, she said. 

"Since this has started it has been fantastic here," Livingston said of the community donations.

Rebecca Holm, office manager for Iron County UW-Extension, which runs the Iron County Mobile Food Pantry, said the pantry has always set up its monthly drive-thru program at the parking lot for Iron County Recycling and Iron County Forestry Department in Hurley. This made the transition to coronavirus prevention as simple as requiring staff to mask and that clients keep their car windows up. 

Outreach is very important at this time when there are people who are seeking assistance that have never asked for help before and need some help navigating resources. She said many people are not aware that poverty guidelines to qualify have expanded. People are reaching out to friends and neighbors about food pantries and other programs for others who are finding themselves in need for the first time, Holm said.

"With so many people being laid off right now I think that is where we've seen most of our increase in new clients," Holm said. "There are people who have been on unemployment and have not been able to work during the virus."

The pantry partners with Union Station to deliver meals to the senior population at Southgate Village and Garden Estates in Hurley. 

"He (Kolehmainen) delivers to around 40 individuals who live in those apartments and so that's been a really great partnership," Holm said.

Brian Panich, president of the Our Lady of Peace Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said the number of requests dropped at the start of the pandemic shutdown last March, but has since increased along with a recent spike. Another challenge is with the safe distribution of food. 

The Ironwood pantry, across the parking lot from the church, must limit visitors to one at a time and volunteers now serve the 50 residents at the Pioneer Park apartment complex. Ironwood Public Safety Department conducts curbside delivery to homes under COVID-19 quarantine and to other incapacitated residents.

"It's a really nice community service of our public safety director," Panich said. "They've been a really nice integral part of our program."

The St. Vincent de Paul pantries in Ironwood and Bessemer benefit from area food drives, including those by the Ironwood post office, the Michigan State Police and the Daily Globe. 

"The community has just been so generous during this time, and the monetary gifts that we've been getting are just unbelievable," Panich said.

The conference staff volunteered for food pantry duty when volunteers at high risk for contracting the coronavirus were advised to stay home, he said. The Knights of Columbus Winter Coats for Kids program is underway and the pantry is also distributing coats with the remainder going to Santa's Headquarters. 

Betty Perkis, a conference staffer and volunteer, said the spikes and drops in need at the pantry may have to do with the assistance of other programs including the Food for America distributions. But the pantry is getting very busy now, she said.

"I'm hearing from a lot of people that this is the first time in their lives they've ever had to ask for food," Perkis said. "They've been without jobs and some people are giving up jobs to stay home with the kids. It just seems like the people that really, really need them aren't getting them."

The pantries work on a reciprocal referral basis with area social services, the Salvation Army, Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Perkis said. This ensures resources are used wisely, she said.

Linda Cossi, coordinator of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program for Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action, said the numbers haven't changed much for the monthly commodity distribution for individuals ages 60 and older, or with the quarterly distribution for other individuals and families. The Michigan income eligibility guidelines remain at 200% of poverty for adults and at 100% for seniors over age 60.

"We haven't seen a real big increase," Cossi said. "This may be due to the department of health increasing the food assistance benefit to the maximum $194 per month."

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