Growing Local Roots

Local Food Pantries Prepare for Michigan’s Bridge Card Changes

By: Jared Johnson

 New Bridge Card policies will change the need for food assistance in the Kalamazoo area. Although food Pantries, like Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, are prepared for the increase, many people who depend on the Bridge Cards aren’t.

 Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes is preparing for an increase in the need to for assistance to families in the Kalamazoo County because of changes to the Michigan Bridge Card policy.

Bridge Cards, the food assistance program for struggling Michigan residents, have helped many. However, because of cases of bridge card abuse, a new policy was created last April. The new policy, created by the Department of Human Resources, began in November and puts new restrictions on Bridge Cards.

 

Organizations like Loaves and Fishes believe the new policy isn’t the best idea, but are prepared to handle an increase in their own local programs because of it.


"The policy is very misguided,” said Art Kohl, service director at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes. “We as a community need to find ways to keep people’s food safe, not take their current stable food sources away.”

 

Over the past few years, the Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes location has received a steady increase in the number of calls to their hotline.  In 2010 they served over 86,000 pounds of food -- the number of people they’ve served in 2011 already indicates that they will surpass last year’s numbers.


Kohl said the increased need for food is just going to continue to grow.


“We’ve been having a steady growth in the number of people calling in for food for years now,” Kohl said. “And with this new policy, we are already expecting a 15 percent raise in the amount of food we are going to be giving out next year.”


To prepare for the increase for emergency food relief, Loaves and Fishes is not only moving to a larger location, on Portage Street, but also in the process of increasing the number of pantry locations they have, Kohl said.  


The pantry locations are how people receive food. When a person calls into Loaves and Fishes they are asked a few questions and then directed to the nearest location to receive a four day food supply for their family.


“When a person in need calls, we direct them to the nearest pantry for food,” Kohl said. “Depending on the information we receive from them, like the size of their family, we inform the nearest pantry that they will be coming to pick food. Depending on the members in the family, the pantry knows how many items of food the family is allowed to receive.”


Currently there are 25 pantry locations in the Kalamazoo County including those located in surrounding counties, Kohl said. However, with the increase in calls received Loaves and Fishes is investigating plans for additional locations because there are still many regions of high call values that don’t have a pantry near them.


“With every call that we receive our volunteers take down people’s addresses and names and we load them into our computers,” Kohl said. “We then use this data to make maps of our area and figure out where the most calls are being made from so that we can make sure there is always a pantry nearby for a person who needs food.”


Each pantry is run by a different local organization, although most are run out of churches or homeless shelters, said Kimberley Schoetzow, the communication coordinator at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes. The pantries work as an easy access point for people to receive the food they need.  


“We try and make food as easily obtainable as possible,” Schoetzow said. “We want it to be walking distance to those who need it if possible.”


In addition to the food pantries, Loaves and Fishes is also working with other organizations to bring more programs to people in the Kalamazoo area, Schoetzow said. One of these programs includes the Weekend Food Pack program for Kalamazoo students whose families are in food danger. According to Schoetzow, the program is given to kids who base most of their breakfast and lunch meals from going to school and when home for the weekend are in jeopardy of not eating.


“The program started a few years ago and has been a great success,” Schoetzow said. “Teachers were dealing with students coming back to school and not being focused because of lack of food, and now they are more attentive.”


Although programs like the Weekend Food Pack program are beneficial to local residents, Loaves and Fishes is always working with other organizations to create better programs for those in need, Schoetzow said.


“We are always looking for more programs to help people who need the food,” Schoetzow said. “We encourage people to use all the avenues they have to obtain the food they need.”


State Representative Margaret O’Brien said the Michigan government is trying to do the same with the new policy that was just established.

"The policy is not being created to take away from those who need food,” O’Brien said. “It’s been established to crack down on those who used the Bridge Card program to in a way, milk the system.”


The former governor’s policy allowed nearly everyone to be eligible to get a Bridge Card, O’Brien said. She said, the worst cases dealt with college kids whose parents are financially able to take care of them and have Bridge Cards that don’t even need them.


“Let’s face it, most college students are broke. I personally had to work part-time through my entire experience. So those kids who have Bridge Cards and don’t really need them, because let’s say their parents are taking care of them financially, are abusing the system,” O’Brien said. “It comes to a point when a school like Michigan State has an article in their yearbook advertising Bridge Cards, right after tattoos, that you have to ask yourself is it getting out of hand”?


O’Brien said the welfare system is only supposed to be used as a safety net to help those who fall in to a bit of trouble until they are able to get back on their feet. However, it’s been being used as much more than that in the last few years.


According to the new policy, students who work less than 20 hours a week and are dependents of their parents will no longer be able to receive a Bridge Card. In addition, the students who already have Bridge Cards will no longer be allowed to use them.


“It’s stupid what they are doing to us just because we don’t have time in our schedules to work 20 or more hours a week,” said Chaynce Harris, a junior, studying business at Western Michigan University. “Not only do I have extra bills because I stay in an apartment off-campus I’m taking more credits than I should be so I can hopefully graduate early.”


Harris is not the only one of his friends upset because of the new policy. Harris’ parents who liked the extra monthly help from the Bridge Card are also upset because of the new policies.


“My parents are upset over this, they now have to pay even more money for my education than they did before,” Harris said. “Of course it’s not going to hurt them drastically but it still is a change to the amount of money they had been planning on sending me.”


Although college students are affected the most by the policy other people in the Kalamazoo region will also see a change in their Bridge Card policies because of an additional law that makes property taxes a variable in Bridge Card eligibility.


Many people currently believe that these changes in the food assistant program are just occurring at the wrong time, O'Brien said.  But she said this is the perfect time for the change to occur.


“Yes it will leave a lot of people in a bad rut for a little while as they look for jobs and adjust to the new changes in welfare and food assistance programs,” O’Brien said. “But it will also hopefully manage to create steadier taxes, which will then in turn make it more appealing for tax payers to stay in the state instead of running away.”