CADILLAC — The hallways of the Salvation Army office in Cadillac were uncharacteristically serene during the first few weeks of 2021, especially compared to the whirlwind of the holidays.
"It was eerily quiet," said Salvation Army Major R.C. Duskin. "It was a nice little break though, after finishing with Project Christmas."
In 2020, Project Christmas was cancelled out of COVID-related concerns that organizers had about the idea of hundreds of people gathering in close proximity in a single building. Instead of letting the whole event go to waste, however, Salvation Army stepped up to distribute food boxes to all the participating families — 560 altogether.
Even with help from Project Christmas volunteers, it was a big endeavor, so the lull following the holidays was a welcome, albeit somewhat mysterious, change of pace.
Other pantries in the area also experienced a dip in food assistance requests at the beginning of the year.
"I can't quite understand it," said Kari Hanus, who helps run the food pantry at First Baptist Church in Cadillac. "We're trying to figure that out."
At the beginning of the pandemic last spring, Hanus told the Cadillac News she'd never seen as many requests for assistance.
"Never in my lifetime," Hanus said at the time. "A lot of people have been calling about our food pantry. It's unprecedented."
First Baptist Church was one of a number of organizations in the Cadillac area that expanded their food assistance programs last year to serve people affected by the economic disruption caused by the virus.
Throughout the year, Hanus said need remained consistently high — about 20 to 30% higher than during a typical year.
Fortunately, Hanus said the higher level of demand was matched by donations and support from the community.
"We never came to the point where we ran out of food," Hanus said.
Another organization in the area that worked to expand availability of food assistance last year was Community Hope, in Missaukee County.
Jennifer Pugh, executive director of Community Hope, said they helped open two new food distribution sites — one at Rehoboth Reformed Church near McBain and the other at Prosper Christian Reformed Church in Falmouth. Community Hope also works with Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lake City, which ran a pantry prior to 2020.
"It was so clear the need was there," Pugh said. "We were serving 380 to 400 families a week during the peak period, which lasted for several months."
Keeping their shelves stocked with quality food items wasn't "natural occurring," as Pugh put it; it required a good deal of effort to obtain grants and donations from the community.
"People are still giving, though," Pugh said.
Beginning around six weeks ago, however, Pugh said they began to notice a dip in the number of families showing up to receive food bags. Today, they're serving from 340 to 350 families.
There could be several factors contributing to the recent drop in need that pantries in the area are experiencing but one popular theory is that people have been taking advantage of recent government assistance in the form of stimulus payments, expanded unemployment benefits and even tax returns.
Pugh said another factor might be the snow.
"Some people are really nervous about driving in bad weather," said Pugh, who added that elderly folks may be the most apt to forgo a trip on ice-covered roads: the two locations in Missaukee County that serve the greatest number of elderly individuals also saw the biggest decline in requests since the beginning of the year.
One pantry that hasn't seen a decline in need this year is the Veterans Serving Veterans park in Haring Township, which is open the second and fourth Thursday of each month from 11 a.m. to noon.
Steve Birdwell, who helps run the pantry, said they've actually seen an increase during the last six weeks in the number of veteran families they serve, from around 30 a week to 40. During 2020, Birdwell said the number of families they serve increased from around 20 to 30.
With many people out of work and with VSV being one of the few food pantries in the area that give out meat, Birdwell said it's no surprise to him that demand continues to grow.
Pugh said there are a lot of people who are struggling in Missaukee County right now, particularly single parents who pulled their kids out of school. She predicted that the level of need will remain steady through the year, until perhaps this fall, when parents may feel more comfortable sending their kids back to school.
Hanus, with First Baptist Church, said she noticed a general trend toward greater levels of need even before the pandemic arrived, so she has no reason to believe this trend won't continue after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Duskin, with Salvation Army, said they've increased the frequency of their food distributions from every 90 days to every 30 days to keep up with demand.
Although there were times when they were close to running out of certain items, Duskin said thanks to community support, they've been able to continue serving those in need.
"The generosity has been wonderful to see," Duskin said.