The other side of my resort town: poverty on the Lake Michigan coast

Volunteers at a mobile food pantry.
June 9, 2016
by Andrew Steiner

On a sunny Thursday in May, the twin Michigan cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are hosting two very different events. At the new Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course on the north side of Benton Harbor, hundreds of mostly white spectators watch the Senior PGA Championship, while at Trinity Lutheran Church in “St. Joe,” a hundred people, mostly African American wait in line to get food.

The two groups probably passed each other as they crossed the bridge.

That’s because St. Joe and Benton Harbor are near-perfect opposites, reflected across the river that divides them. St. Joe to the south is a classic Lake Michigan beach town, full of restaurants and boutiques, while Benton Harbor, golf course aside, is a sprawl of vacant businesses and housing projects. St. Joe is 88 percent white with a median income of $53,000. Benton Harbor is 89 percent black and half its population lives in poverty.

“Feeding America’s very important to people in Benton Harbor,” says a young mother named Monique as she waits for the Feeding America West Michigan Mobile Pantry to begin. “Thank God they have one here every month.”

Debby, Trinity’s community outreach director, has lived in the area all her life and has seen Benton Harbor’s economy crumble while St. Joe’s has flourished.

Some of Debby’s guests, like the older man sleeping under a nearby tree, are homeless. Many are seniors. Others, like Vanity, are cobbling together a living from sporadic employment, federal assistance, and help from family, friends and local charities.

A self-employed hairdresser, Vanity was told that she’s making too much money to qualify for SNAP this year. “I said, okay, that’s on me. I can take my loss, but I’ve got two children,” she says.

For now, Vanity’s boyfriend is covering part of her grocery budget, but it’s only a temporary solution. She has a date set for an eligibility hearing.

Mobile pantries like this one, therefore, are a big help. Each truck is loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and baked goods — ingredients Vanity can use to make meals for her family.

“I like to cook things that stick around for a few days so the kids, when they come home from school, they can have something to eat,” she says. That’s especially important right now because Vanity’s oldest is a 13-year-old football player with a big appetite.

When her number is called, Vanity moves through the line filling a duffel bag and an empty Chiquita banana box with potatoes, sweet corn and greens. When she’s done, she packs the food into her auntie’s van and heads back across the river to her home in Benton Harbor’s Highland Projects. The food she picked up today should get her family through another week.

While Debby acknowledges that a mobile pantry won’t solve her guests’ problems, she says progress is being made in the community. “I want people to know that there are good people in St. Joe and organizations and churches who really have stepped up to the plate to help our neighbors.”

She points to the United Way of Southwest Michigan’s Berrien County Food Summit, which brings together local farmers, healthcare workers, academics and staff from Feeding America West Michigan. Its goal is to increase access to healthy, local food in Benton Harbor. It’s no overnight solution, but it gives her hope.

*Andrew Steiner is the media coordinator at Feeding America West Michigan.

**Photos courtesy of Feeding America West Michigan.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Hunger in Your Community , Michigan , Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank
 

Stay Informed

Get email updates about what we're doing to help solve hunger and how you can help.