Q&A: Russ Russell on Hunger in Metro Detroit
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A January 2010 research study found that one in four Michigan households with children lacked enough money to buy food that the family needed last year.
That is where Oak Park-based Forgotten Harvest comes in. The non-profit organization rescues food from grocers, restaurants, farmers and the like. This sustenance is delivered free to emergency food providers across the Metro Detroit area. Last year, the group saved 12.5 million pounds of life-sustaining food.
Is it a struggle? Just ask Russ Russell about the crisis. He is the Chief Development Officer and one of the biggest voices speaking on behalf of the hungry in Metro Detroit.
“We have to do this. We don't have a choice. The way we look at it is we're in an emergency crisis because the shortage is so big. We're a food relief organization. If we don't step up to the plate and make the pitch to people to help us meet the demand, then we're not a relevant player. We have to fight, scrape and grab for everything we can,” Russell said.
“I look around Detroit and it makes you wonder what the heck is happening. We cannot allow our city to fall into Third-World status. We can't. We've got to fight for them.”
Demand is soaring in this state with high unemployment, reduced wages and underemployment. That is why Forgotten Harvest is pushing even more to get food out to the people. Besides its normal fund-raising routes, the group has gone with heavy direct mailings, a telethon and radiothon as well as other televised campaigns to get folks to recognize not only the need, but how easy it is to help.
Q: Where is the poverty line these days?
A: If you could throw a blanket over it, you could get everybody in the tri-county area. Detroit neighborhoods continue to be at high risk, but now we're finding new pockets of poverty. Warren has 22 percent unemployment, Dearborn Heights is more than 20 percent as well. Pontiac is off the charts. It's in Royal oak, Sterling Heights, Madison Heights. Now we're getting calls from Birmingham, Bloomfield hills, Canton – places you wouldn't believe poverty or hunger exists. But it does.
Q: What is the reason for the increase in hunger?
A: High unemployment and underemployment. People taking jobs that pay less if they can find a job at all. Instead of making $30 to $50 per hour, people are making $14 to $20 per hour with the same house, the same mortgage, the same bills. They're living paycheck to paycheck and that's when food becomes a major issue. Sometimes, they wait until the last minute to find where food is available. And this is happening everywhere; we're finding food deserts. There are supermarkets in these areas, but people cannot afford to go shopping there. And those on food stamps find they can make them last for 10 or 11 days, but they don't cover an entire 30 days. They have to find supplemental food to cover their needs. The issue of hunger is real and it is increasing. One study told us the food deficit for the region is about 120 million meals for people living in poverty or unemployment. And that will increase to 300 million pounds of food needed by 2013. We know this problem isn't going to go away.
Q: How do you handle this new level of hunger?
A: We've been gearing up to meet increased need. We're doing advocacy to get more food in, get more people involved. There's been a backlog of people who need food stamps; many who have been qualified have had to wait and sometimes wait we believe far too long. We must advocate for the food that should be available to our citizens and increase our output. Both Gleaners (a community food bank) and Forgotten Harvest are seeing it; we have increased our output 50 percent; Gleaners is up 20 percent this year. And it's nowhere near enough.
Q: How can you meet the new goals?
A: The good news is if Forgotten Harvest got enough funds to rescue the food out there, then we know we could feed every person and fill that 300 million pound food gap. We're looking at lots of ways to retrieve those foods. We're going to places we never have before. We're going to farms with refrigerated tractor trailers instead of just refrigerated trucks. And we sit there until the trucks get filled. The problem is when we're getting 50,000 pounds of potatoes is that (our emergency food partners) cannot handle, so we have to repackage it and get it to them in sizes they're capable of handling. If not, it gets sent to the landfill in a different way. We provide 165 groups food free of charge – and it is perishable food. It has a short lifespan so we have to make sure the food is given in quantities they need. It is a logistics and timing issue.
Q: So how can we help?
A: The positive thing about giving to Forgotten Harvest is that Michigan provides a tax credit. For a couple that gives $400, they'll get a 50 percent tax credit, so $200 comes back to you immediately at tax time. That's an incredible incentive for someone to give a charitable donation. Our administrative costs are less than 5 percent, so they're very low. So when you do make a donation, you can be assured the donation you're making is creating a huge difference. It just makes good sense to support an organization like this. Right now, we're in the midst of our Million Meal challenge – to provide food to children during non-school days, such as summertime. We need to get an addition 20,000 meals a day to children who depend on breakfast or lunch program as their only meal. Otherwise, they don't know where that next meal is coming from. We've earned 615,000 meals towards that challenge now – and we've got a little further to go. We're excited about it. We believe we're going to help during those long weeks of summer. It's all a critical piece in keeping our community together. We've got to feed our kids.