Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.
Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.

With food security a growing issue, state Rep. Angela Witwer thinks Michigan’s diverse agriculture industry can help feed its struggling families.

LANSING, MI — An empty plate is a reality for more than a million Michiganders, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is working to fix that. 

Nearly 1.5 million people in Michigan receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through the state’s Food Assistance Program. The coronavirus pandemic has made this even worse by destabilizing the economy and disrupting the financial security of a wide swath of Michigan families. 

When financial security is disrupted, food security is disrupted. 

RELATED: Federal Aid Isn’t Reaching Michigan Farmers. Here’s What They Need to Survive.

“No one should have to worry about how they are going to put food on the table the next day,” said Gov. Whitmer. “Food insecurity is a very real and prevalent issue for many Michiganders, and COVID-19 has only made the problem worse. That is why, today, I am creating the Food Security Council to bring together leaders from both sides of the aisle to find solutions on behalf of Michigan families. I am committed to making sure every family and person has access to the quality, nutritious food they need.” 

The Food Security Council will look for causes of and solutions to the problems that create food insecurity in Michigan. 

A Council to Help Michiganders Find Food

The council will not only identify the root causes of food insecurity, but find evidence-based solutions to those problems both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. The council will prepare and submit a final report in two stages, with the first stage due in three months and focused on short-term findings and recommendations related to food insecurity and the pandemic. Then it will issue its full, final report within 18 months, and will dissolve 90 days after doing so.  

“COVID-19 has magnified the effects and challenges of food insecurity and increased the number of Michigan residents who struggle with the toxic stress of being food insecure,” said Phil Knight, chair of the Food Security Council. “This is a non-partisan challenge, and while multi-layered, it is solvable for the second most diverse agricultural state in the U.S..” 

Though the role of the pandemic in food insecurity is important, it isn’t the sole focus on the council. 

The council is made up of the superintendent of public instruction and the directors of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Rural Development, and Labor and Economic Opportunity, legislators, farmers, medical experts, and experts on food policy.

SEE ALSO: Michigan’s Unemployment Fallout Is Just Starting — and There’s No More Help on the Way

There is optimism from members of the council that real solutions can be found, thanks in part to the uniquely advantaged position Michigan is in with this particular challenge. 

“Hunger and food insecurity is an issue experienced in far too many communities across our state,” said council member and state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp). “As a largely agricultural state that produces so much food, there are options we have not yet explored.”

Witwer has worked to address food policy and hunger in the state in other capacities before, working with the Food Bank Council where she worked with Knight in the past. 

“It has been an incredibly educational and rewarding experience working with the Food Bank Council and the seven regional food banks over these past decade, and I am honored to have now been chosen to serve on this commission,” she said. “I have no doubt that if we come together and dedicate ourselves to this cause, we can ultimately put an end to this longstanding, devastating problem.”

And the Food Security Council has a head start, thanks to information we already know about what causes food insecurity and how those factors are at play in Michigan. 

The Source of Food Insecurity

According to a 2006 study, there are six major factors that contribute to food insecurity. Those factors are low average wages, high cost of rental housing, high unemployment rate, high rate of residential instability, low participation in the SNAP, and high tax burden on low-income households.

And for Michigan, those metrics don’t look great. For instance, Food Access in Michigan found, prior to the pandemic, renters made on average about $13 an hour, while to afford an average rental unit requires $16 an hour. 

FAIM also found that that excessive burden caused by rent contributed to rental instability, and indicated low average wages. 

READ MORE: JUST IN: Out-of-Work Michiganders Will Temporarily Get $300 More per Week

In fact, with the unemployment rate exceedingly high thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the only metric of the six that Michigan passes is SNAP participation, with 85% of eligible Michiganders participating. But even this number has been in decline, FAIM found, in part due to policy changes between 2012 and 2017 that discouraged SNAP participation. 

But those challenges aren’t insurmountable, Knight said. And surmounting them will help struggling Michigan families get back on track.  

“Creating food security is the first step towards self-sufficiency, and while it starts in the field, it is sustained in the workplace,” said Knight. “Our hungry neighbors are worthy of our investment in them as we seek to fulfill the directives given to the council.”