In this midwestern city the motto is: Take what you need, give what you can

Bay City, Michigan: Bootstrapping through the pandemic

It’s been exactly four years since Shannon Benjamin planted a filing cabinet on the curb outside her house in Bay City, Michigan, and filled it with food, hoping that people passing by and in need would feel free to help themselves.

Then, as now, the country was on the precipice of a divisive presidential election, but politics didn’t play a part. Rather, she did it with her grandmother in mind, a lifelong resident of Bay City who raised her and who Benjamin had always thought of as “the perfect cross between Fred Rogers and Bea Arthur,” her home a refuge to outcasts and strays, her kitchen always open to anyone who was hungry. Her message to those she nurtured: be a helper.

When she went to check on the cabinet the following day, Benjamin found all the food she’d left was gone, but even more surprisingly, that someone — a stranger — had restocked it. “Today feels like the first day of an amazing new life,” Benjamin wrote in her journal. The next day her grandmother was admitted to the hospital; she died a week later.

Searching for an outlet for her grief, Benjamin began to plant more cabinets across the city.

Soon cabinets were appearing in front of tanning salons and tattoo parlors, pawn shops and pet shelters and private residences.

“I kept going because if I didn’t, I would remember that I was in this big old city without her now, and that was too scary,” Benjamin said recently. “I kept going because if someone didn’t keep saying her name and doing things she would do, taking care of things she would take care of, she might be forgotten. I needed an anchor of sorts keeping her here, so I had a reason to stay. Otherwise, I was a balloon floating aimlessly and it would have taken but a pinprick to destroy me.”

In the earliest stages of the cabinet experiment, launched during a time of economic growth, the project could keep pace with local needs. But now, six months into the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession, the two dozen or so cabinets dotted around town are a local fixture — but they aren’t enough.

CNN Impact Your World: How You Can Help Fight the Hunger Crisis

The need in Bay City, as in so many towns across the country, is so great that even the big food pantries are registering unprecedented demand. On any given Monday, a caravan of cars begins to form downtown, gradually extending the length of two city blocks, drivers nosing their minivans and sedans into the parking lot of the local Salvation Army. There, in addition to the emergency food boxes and daily hot lunch giveaways that existed before the pandemic, the organization now offers a weekly grocery pick-up for essential workers, where those accepting the free boxes of food and gallons of milk are employed, but nevertheless struggling to get by.

Volunteers assist cars picking up donated food outside the Salvation Army in Bay City, Michigan.
Volunteers assist cars picking up donated food outside the Salvation Army in Bay City, Michigan.

Rather than people who have lost their jobs, it’s a steady stream of scrubs, work boots, name tags on breast pockets, paint-splattered coveralls. Car seats in the back. Members of the service industry, some of whom have seen their hours slashed — along with the tips they’d always depended on to see them through. Many of the workers are past middle age, nearing the time when they might want to be thinking about retirement but unable to because they’ve already fallen so far behind.

Amy White, 49, hadn’t even had a chance to change out of her scrubs before she arrived recently to pick up a box of food as soon as her shift as a medical assistant at the local hospital ended. She’d found work again after being laid off from her previous medical assistant job in March, but it had taken five months for her unemployment payment to arrive — “And by then it was already spent,” she said. Once she’d caught up on the backdated bills, she had nothing left, and new payments were mounting. Her husband has early-onset Alzheimer’s and can’t work. They had been financially wiped out once already, back in 2008, and had only just started to feel like maybe they could start to climb out of that hole. Now, she said, laughing ruefully, she would never be able to stop working. She had actually left behind her previous profession of hairdressing and gone back to school to become a medical assistant, thinking it would be a more stable career. She motioned to a pile of homemade masks on the car seat next to her, which she was selling to generate extra income. One for $3.

Taxi driver Jan Harrington showed up in her cab, between passengers. At 57, she had only just slipped back behind the wheel after a few months’ break out of fear for her own health. “I’ve had so many back-to-back pickups and wanting to make up for the time that I lost that I haven’t had time to stop for food myself,” she said, between checking in with dispatch on her Bluetooth for any new fares.

Historically Democratic-leaning, Bay County was among those that flipped for Donald Trump in 2016, helping lift him to victory in what turned out to be a crucial battleground state — then voted Democratic again in 2018.

Bay County election results

Source: Bay County Clerk Office, Michigan Secretary of State

With stimulus negotiations stalled and further help from Washington stuck in a partisan seesaw in the last weeks before the November 3 election, the whole area seemed to have turned inward. As the pandemic continues to hobble daily life and the economy, its struggles offer a window into how completely smaller communities have been left to fend for themselves — and how their success creating invisible networks of mutual assistance have helped paper over the degree to which they’ve given up believing they can count on relief from sources any more distant than the closest food pantry parking lot.

Even before Covid, Bay City — a town of about 33,000 nestled on Lake Huron in the crook of Michigan’s thumb, perhaps best known as Madonna’s birthplace — had already been doing its best to address underlying vulnerabilities that intensified the needs of its residents. One local summed up the ethos this way: We were taught growing up, if you have two bites, then you have enough to share.

Bay City has never had money like its neighbor, Midland, where Dow Chemical is headquartered, and from which philanthropic dollars have always flowed. And it doesn’t have the population density of Saginaw, to the south, and the range of social services that it brings. It sprang up as a lumber town, and every day booms of logs felled from the northern Michigan woods were floated down the river to one of dozens of sawmills lining the banks. Sawdust once drifted down like rain. And not far behind the logs came the crusted, tick-bit lumberjacks emerging from months alone in the deep woods, eager to divest themselves of their paychecks along the city’s main street, glutted with bars and saloons, known — not out of exaggeration or affectation but out of an abundance of caution — as Hell’s Half Mile. Gradually, the forests stopped giving, the mills fell silent and the air no longer rained sawdust. The city turned to manufacturing, building ships and auto parts and milling sugar.

Bay City’s median income is much lower than surrounding area

Source: US Census Bureau

Today, Bay County, of which Bay City is the seat, has the highest median age of any county in a state with the highest median age in the US, according to the Census. One out of every four Bay County residents is over 60. One out of every two county residents is on some form of assistance, whether Medicare or Medicaid. By population, it is also home to the state’s highest percentage of veterans. Its poverty rate before the pandemic hovered at around 16%. The region’s biggest employers are the health care industry — which shows in the local thrift stores, where racks are devoted to the pastel and patterned scrubs favored by medical and nursing assistants — and manufacturing and retail, none of which are fields that pay especially large salaries.

But Bay County had long prided itself on how it had been able to care for its neediest residents, despite fewer resources compared to neighboring communities, relying on creativity and gumption, Bay County Health Officer Joel Strasz told me. “It has helped us for the last few months,” he said. But as the pandemic grinds on, and new needs are revealed, he went on, “it has really stripped away any veneer of exceptionalism and exposed the rough grain of inequality.”

Michigan received nearly $4 billion in federal stimulus money, but Bay City only got about $2.5 million of that, according to county executive Jim Barcia. A Democrat who has also served in the Michigan House and Senate as well as in the US House of Representatives, he noted that smaller counties like Bay County have been especially strained by the pandemic, forced to absorb additional costs because most of the stimulus money designated to help local governments went first to bigger cities and counties. “We didn’t get anything,” he said.

The Saginaw River passes through downtown Bay City.
The Saginaw River passes through downtown Bay City.

And while the area has been successful, in Barcia’s opinion, in marshaling its own resources to generate grants for small businesses affected by the pandemic, he has also witnessed the signs of severe strain — including the ongoing anger at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who for months has been targeted with threats, including a violent kidnap plot exposed in early October. But even Democrats have expressed frustration at the economic constraints of the pandemic. Barcia mentioned a small business owner who is “a strong Democrat, but basically he blamed Gov. Whitmer for shutting down his business, and now he can’t pay his bills and didn’t qualify for anything. That’s an indication of what we’re seeing across the economic landscape — some who have weathered the shut down and minimized their costs and others didn’t have that kind of safety net to navigate four, five, six months without income.”

After Madonna, Bay City’s next most famous former resident is probably Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. True to the town’s narrative of itself as a place of resourcefulness and moxie, the story goes that Taylor, 62, came up with the idea for the 1901 stunt as a way to make money when requests for her services as a charm school teacher to the children of the local elite began to dwindle — and also so she could “succor two friends” who were struggling financially, according to an autobiographical account cited by her New York Times obituary.

The area stands at a confluence of industry and agriculture. Commercial freighters bound for Lake Huron still float down the Saginaw River. General Motors still has a presence in town, though its Powertrain factory that once employed 5000 is now down to less than 500. And it’s surrounded by farmland. Starting each August, trucks rumble through town loaded with beets harvested from the surrounding fields, ready to be processed into sugar at the factory located on the outskirts of town, one of four owned by Michigan Sugar, the third largest sugar beet manufacturer in the country, headquartered in Bay City. “You can’t drive 10 miles in any direction without hitting a farm,” said Samantha McKenzie, president and CEO of Hidden Harvest, a nonprofit that rescues and redistributes food from businesses and farmers that would otherwise go to waste. “We’re in one of the richest agricultural areas in Michigan.”

Samantha McKenzie is the president and CEO of Hidden Harvest in Saginaw, Michigan.
Samantha McKenzie is the president and CEO of Hidden Harvest in Saginaw, Michigan.

Hidden Harvest serves as the hub of the county’s entire food pantry and soup kitchen network — from small, informal pantries like the one for Bay City vets that’s housed in one room of a cinderblock extension of a Knights of Columbus bingo hall to massive operations like the Salvation Army. Every half hour, local pantry and soup kitchen coordinators roll up to load trucks with the latest donations that Hidden Harvest has gleaned. In a normal fiscal year, the nonprofit gathers and redistributes nearly 2.5 million pounds of food. By the end of this fiscal year, which was in September, they had gathered 3.3 million pounds. It was a bittersweet windfall: With the pandemic shuttering restaurants and catering businesses, Hidden Harvest had picked up their excess inventory.

On the day I visited, an area of the warehouse that had been filled with towering pallets of bread and juice and bins of fresh corn was, within two hours, nearly gone. “As soon as it comes in, it goes out,” said McKenzie. Her family was also feeling the economic consequences of the pandemic; her husband, a therapist, had been unable to hold group sessions and had seen his hours cut in half. As a result, the family had lost its employer-subsidized health coverage.

We watched as a semi pulled up, filled with 1,200 cases of fresh produce from local farmers — radishes and apples and red potatoes and celery — all surplus crops purchased by the US Department of Agriculture for the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program initiated under the coronavirus pandemic relief package. It would be redistributed to local food banks and soup kitchens before the end of the day.

Willie Sims of Christ Deliverance Church picks up a pallet of flour at Hidden Harvest.
Willie Sims of Christ Deliverance Church picks up a pallet of flour at Hidden Harvest.

The USDA boxes made a big difference in keeping up with demand, said McKenzie, but even before the final phase of the program — which was set to expire on October 31 — funding had already run out and the deliveries halted. As a result, she was planning how to handle the loss of that additional federal help, and contemplating how local resources, already at capacity, could stretch to fill the breach. That included the East Side Soup Kitchen, which is housed next door to the warehouse and has seen a striking increase in the number of seniors requesting meals, especially seniors with grandchildren — “probably caring for them while parents are at work,” said Diane Keenan, a member of the kitchen’s board and interim director.

But McKenzie’s biggest concern was families who are referred to in social service circles as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. As we talked, workers set aside pallets of produce for delivery to the region’s larger food pantries, boxes that would soon arrive to the Salvation Army in Bay City, and in turn be placed in the trunks of the cabs and trucks and sedans of tired workers who roll up on Monday nights. Other boxes would go to a food pantry in Bay City housed in a former convent, which is run by a man who McKenzie unreservedly calls “the angel of Bay City”: Mark Morand.

Mark Morand oversees the food pantry at the Our Lady of Peace Parish.
Mark Morand oversees the food pantry at the Our Lady of Peace Parish.

Morand, 85, lives in a modest neighborhood in the part of the city known as the Banks. Morand is fond of calling his friends “rascal” — as in, “There you are, my rascal!” — and has the endearing habit of referring to even acute hardships or setbacks as “stinkers.” He quotes passages from books he has recently read and delights in conversations about history and memory and genealogy. He spent the bulk of his professional life at the Saginaw Steering Division of GM, first as a draftsman in the engineering department, then as a supervisor in quality control, and finally as a divisional buyer for manufacturing. Since his retirement, which came just as GM began reducing the number of workers at its Bay City and Saginaw plants, he said he’s seen “the middle class” — of which he always solidly counted himself a member — “really suffer here.”

As a volunteer, Morand has helped with the food pantry operations for the parishes of St. Vincent De Paul in Bay City for nearly 60 years and has served on the county food council, a group of food pantry and other social outreach program workers from area agencies, since it was started.

The pantry Morand oversees, located at Our Lady of Peace Parish, is open Mondays and Wednesdays and offers once-a-month emergency boxes to those who need it.

A team of volunteers — all retired — handle the requests with balletic efficiency that comes, they joke, from many of them being retired elementary school teachers; in the high-ceilinged wood glow of the old convent, there’s a team in one room preassembling boxes with dry goods to be handed off to the perishables crew as soon as someone arrives.

Refrigerators and freezers are numbered to allow for an efficient, step-by-step assembly of each remaining part: juice, meat, dairy, eggs.

Morand largely handles the administrative end of things now, but is also known among the members of the food council as a kind of volunteer MacGyver for those cases that require unconventional problem solving – able to engineer a solution in instances that feel otherwise impossible to solve. His landline announces with its clipped and digitized lilt a new round of incoming calls that will reveal how many people on any given day, and in any given moment, are quietly living in the pause between survival and crisis.

He has been known to deliver food to the doorsteps of those who have no transportation, who have difficulty walking to a pantry location, or who have immediate need outside of the designated days an organization is open. He has found the money to fix flat tires that have prevented someone from getting to work. I watched him spend hours tracking down someone who would be willing to refurbish an old gas stove for a family that could not afford to buy a new one. He wouldn’t think twice about rescheduling his personal appointments to run food over to the apartment of an elderly disabled veteran whose benefits check had been delayed and who had nothing left in his pantry or to the home of the father who had only gum to give his girls to mask their hunger pangs.

For the first few months of the pandemic, Morand was heartened that they had been able to give food to everyone who needed it, but he’s grown wary as federal safety nets have disappeared. “I’m still not sure when we’ll reach the edge of the cliff,” he said. He has been touched by the way individuals have taken their responsibility to help each other so seriously, like the woman who calls his pantry every single Monday to offer to donate dozens of eggs.

Morand, known to some as the “Angel of Bay City,” says people in the community always come out of the woodwork to help when the pantry he volunteers for needs it most.

The pandemic revealed to him how fragile and interdependent the network of care can be at a local level, like the strands of a spider web — and how quickly, when gaps appear at the governmental level, even a pantry as small as his begins to absorb the reverberations.

He has sensed that a shift in the kinds of jobs that are available, as well as the absence of generous medical and pension benefits like those he once enjoyed, has set people up for more precarious lives. “When I look at our pantry, I was recently reviewing some of our old counts, we used to help five to six families a week,” he said. “Now we’re over 100 in a month. These are people who we are seeing consistently and they say, ‘If we didn’t get food from you toward the end of the month, we wouldn’t have any money left to pay bills and still buy food.’”

Boxes of food wait for locals to pick them up at the Our Lady of Peace pantry.
Boxes of food wait for locals to pick them up at the Our Lady of Peace pantry.

He is quiet in his faith, but pinned to his refrigerator are prayer cards from recent services at his church. Last summer, he lost his wife of almost 64 years to Alzheimer’s disease and sometimes, out of habit, he finds himself speaking to the empty chair where she used to sit, telling her the stories of the people he met who he can’t stop thinking about: the single mother with the elementary-aged son who has no computer, but whose school days, now with the pandemic, are entirely online. “Mary, I’m thinking maybe he can use mine,” he’ll say. Recently, after learning his cleaning lady had fallen ill with the flu and had not been able to do her own laundry for three days, he donned a mask and gloves and collected a load from her porch and washed it in his machine.

His incessant pace had slowed recently, after he injured his knee. “Wow! I have been almost immobile. Nurse-friend said to use ice 10 minutes, then Bio-Freeze, Ace-bandage, and Motrin,” he said. “Well, it has worked and today I was able to get to several appointments, the pantry.” That included driving a mother and her two twin girls who had no food to the pantry — even though it was not officially open that day — and he would soon be off again to find 10 cases of Evolve for a young man with dietary restrictions whose family could not afford the expensive supplement. “I will have someone help me with that tomorrow, or I will be back into the limping mode,” he admitted.

What grew clear, listening to Morand, was that there was always someone to call in Bay City’s network of helpers. A few short blocks from his house, down one of the main business thoroughfares in the Banks, I spotted one of Shannon Benjamin’s filing cabinets set on picnic bench at the sidewalk’s edge, the kind of place someone would take a coffee or a smoke break. “Take what you need; give what you can,” was painted on the side. “Oh,” Morand said. “That rascal is my pal!”

Shannon Benjamin stands outside her home. She is a co-originator of the donation cabinets spread throughout Bay City.
Shannon Benjamin stands outside her home. She is a co-originator of the donation cabinets spread throughout Bay City.

In her day job for Northeast Michigan’s 211 service, Benjamin takes calls from people who have not eaten, who are about to lose their utilities, who cannot clothe their children, who have no place to live — and tries to link them to agencies that can help. Early on, she found that some people didn’t quite meet the eligibility requirements for certain pantries, had already exhausted what they could apply for or just didn’t want to have to recount what went wrong to bring them to this point. Benjamin thought of the way her grandmother and her neighbors had always pooled resources, shared what they had, and somehow it was enough, and like Morand, she began devoting her personal time to helping.

On Facebook, she posed the question: Who would be interested in hosting a little free pantry outside their house? She envisioned a whole system of metal filing cabinets that each host would pledge to keep stocked, where people could walk by and help themselves if they needed anything, no questions asked. After a minor dust-up in the early days over whether the metal cabinets could actually resist the efforts of enterprising raccoons — so far, the answer has been yes — they began to pop up in front of houses, and then businesses, on either side of the river. Gardeners left fresh produce. A ladies’ bowling team collected donations. One of Benjamin’s mother’s friends crocheted more than 500 scarves, hats and gloves to place in the cabinets in winter with donated yarn that another friend — a bar owner for whom Benjamin’s mom once worked — found at his mother’s home after she had died.

There’s even a donation and storage area in the basement of a local tattoo shop, VooDoo Tattoo, where flats of canned goods share real estate with candles with scents like “werewolf” and “shipwreck” — “The anti-Yankee Candle,” owner Shannon Rodriguez said with a laugh. Patrons of the tattoo shop regularly bring food to leave in the shop’s cabinet before heading inside to be inked. “It’s a chain of kind events, and look how far it extends,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about learning how we can watch out for each other.”

Shannon Rodriguez owns VooDoo Tattoo, which houses a donation and storage area in its basement.
Shannon Rodriguez owns VooDoo Tattoo, which houses a donation and storage area in its basement.

Where Morand, a church-affiliated retiree, represents the GM generation of Bay City’s past — those who landed solid union jobs and a guaranteed pension and the stability that afforded — Benjamin represents the complex reality facing residents two generations younger.

As a child, Benjamin lived with her grandmother, Barb McEown, in a house on a quiet street, with a porch big enough for a dining table. At Grandma Barb’s, Benjamin played cards or ate candy from Witzke’s, the party store down the street, as the smoke from her grandmother’s cigarette curled out into the dark, bracketing her stories. Somehow, on less than $1000 a month — alimony from McEown’s ex, who worked at the GM plant — Benjamin’s grandmother was able to raise her children, her sister’s children and then her grandchildren. “We never felt without,” Benjamin said.

Over time, Benjamin came to learn that her grandma did it by creating informal channels of mutual aid. Not that her grandma would have called it that. For her and her friends it was childcare in exchange for a ride to the store. A pot roast and a six-pack for help with home repairs. Scrubbing your kitchen for a chance to do a load of laundry in your washer.

Today the house with the porch, the pink-tiled bathroom and the cracked linoleum in the kitchen that looked like aged brick is gone, razed after it fell into disrepair following McEown’s death. Benjamin, who now has her own house with a little porch in her grandmother’s city, sometimes drives past the vacant lot, a maw of grass, and tries to map her memories back onto the landscape, her head full of all the empty spaces in people’s lives right now.

Once, Benjamin learned to map the city according to the stories it gave her as a child — the elementary school her grandmother once volunteered at where Benjamin had now set up a little free library in her honor; Family Video where she’d walk on Fridays with her cousins to get movies; Sneaky Pete’s, the bar where her dad would hang out. (“It wasn’t weird to be a kid there back then. They all treated me like their favorite little niece and gave me quarters for the jukebox and I always played Janis Joplin because I liked her bike on the cover of the album,” she said). But in the five years since joining 211, she has learned to draw in new points on the landscape. She knows where to send you if you’re late on rent, if you’re living out of your car, if you’re out of meds, if you need to get clean, if you are thinking of taking your own life. She has also learned through her job that sometimes there are no formal places that exist in the city for what someone needs, that maybe they fall just outside the usual binaries of crisis and getting by.

Since the start of the pandemic, Benjamin has had a frontline view of a creeping economic desperation. Every day she talks to people who have lost their jobs, or seen their hours cut. “Waitresses, waiters, bartenders, people who might still be working in a limited capacity, but really depend on tips are being hit really hard,” she said — people who have never before had to ask for help and don’t know how.

Volunteers assist cars picking up food donations outside the Salvation Army.
Volunteers assist cars picking up food donations outside the Salvation Army.

Benjamin is more sensitive to this than most, having been on the other side of the help she now offers. The six years she spent with her grandmother were among the most stable of her childhood. The years that followed were marked by the kind of oppression and alienation and pain that comes when you’re cared for by people struggling to find their way through their own pains and addictions. She loved books, loved to write and studied hard in high school, driven to attend college. She sought emancipation and then she met an older man — “I was 17 and he was 26 and I see now why it was a problem he didn’t see this as a problem” — became pregnant, and eloped. Three days after their wedding, they moved to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, so she could attend Central Michigan University.

For three years, she tried to keep up with her studies, taking a semester off to have her daughter and another semester off as she struggled to get off financial probation. All the while she worked part time, sometimes at two jobs, while also raising two small children. Ultimately, she had to abandon her studies. Her husband struggled with addictions and landed in jail, leaving her the sole provider. “I was living in a tin-can trailer in the middle of woods. I had no propane, no food, no diapers. We were about to lose our power,” Benjamin said. Many nights, dinner was splitting a four-piece chicken McNuggets and letting the kids romp in the play area of the closest McDonald’s until it closed.

Debt collectors called incessantly. “I had a credit card with a $300 limit that was maxed out. And I kept saying, ‘How can I pay it when I can’t even feed my kids?’ And the woman said, ‘If you can’t feed your kids, what kind of a terrible mother are you?’ I got into a screaming match with her. I said, ‘I’m going to blow my head off and I’m going to make you listen.’ She laughed at me. I hung up. She called me right back. That was the day I tried to kill myself.” She remembered a flier for 211 she had seen on the bulletin board of the local library, where she would spend hours in the warmth and safety of the stacks, losing herself in books. Unsure that anything would come of it, but desperate for help, Benjamin finally called. “And I remember thinking, why did I think I had to go this long all alone?” The service connected her to the local food pantry, helped her get diapers and found resources to pay her electrical bill.

Benjamin, a Bay City community advocate, spent years struggling to make ends meet before she learned the power of asking for help.

That marked a turning point. Soon, she had divorced, reconnected with a high school love, remarried, picked her studies back up at the local community college, had a third child, and moved back to Bay City to be closer to her grandmother. Not long after moving back, she spotted a posting on Craigslist that 211 was hiring. “I knew this was it,” Benjamin said. “My dream job. I remember when I was very little, I told my grandma, I want to talk people off bridges.”

What she remembers saying at the interview: I bring a genuine desire to help people, and I’ve been where they’ve been. I can interact with them in a way someone who has never been on the other side of the desk can never do. I can get to their level, and I can tell them, this is what you’re going to do, because this is the way out. The same day she completed her training and received her certification in suicide prevention — “literally talking people off bridges” — she put out the first cabinet. Then, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital in failing health. She died six days later. Benjamin began to look for ways to try to memorialize her grandmother, to keep the feeling of her close. “I realized that when she died, the city was what I had left.”

On a recent Sunday, I joined Benjamin as she went to check on the cabinets and refill them with a recent bounty of donations that she hauled out from the tattoo shop’s basement – canned tomatoes, boxes of potatoes au gratin, instant soups. As we traced the grids of the city, moving from box to box, what emerged was a tour of Bay City’s invisible support network. Someone had turned their covered carport into a word-of-mouth free clothing closet and pick up spot for basic necessities. There were shelves with soccer cleats and dress flats, bicycle helmets, socks, coats, a row of toiletries, plates, cutlery.

Many of the people who host the cabinets seem to know, as Benjamin does, what it means to weather hard times. The woman with three kids piling out of a minivan with sagging shocks and a peppering of salt rust on the undercarriage. Houses where sheets cover windows instead of blinds. Each host is responsible for keeping their cabinet filled, though Benjamin will supplement what they can offer with donations. “I tell hosts to read your neighborhood,” Benjamin said. That means kid-friendly snacks in the locations near schools. Another host, knowing there are many new parents in the neighborhood, makes sure to stock diapers and wipes, though baby food has proven tricky. “Ants and other bugs LOVE baby food,” Benjamin said.

Donation cabinets can be found outside of homes across Bay City.
Donation cabinets can be found outside of homes across Bay City.

In a small white house on a quiet side street, Sonja McCartney hosts one of the cabinets outside the home she shares with her partner. In her professional life she had been in the banking industry for close to 30 years. As a volunteer she had been involved with food pantry efforts for the last 50 years, and also espoused the Morand-esque approach to giving help where it was needed: one day driving an elderly woman with no transportation to a medical procedure, another taking care of a newborn for a neighbor who did not have access to childcare.

There was something about the simplicity of Benjamin’s cabinet project that moved her. “I believe in accepting everyone where they are,” she said. “Going in with an open heart. And this feels very openhearted. No questions asked. You can come in the night, if it’s a shame thing. Nobody’s judging. You are trusted and you are respected.” She tried to include things like pet food, because she personally knew of seniors who chose to water down insulin so they could buy kibble for their dog. Now the local Humane Society also has a cabinet that they keep stocked with pet supplies for exactly this reason.

The cabinet at McCartney’s house was one of the stops Benjamin and I made as we rode around together. As we mapped the presence of other peoples’ needs, Benjamin happened to mention to me that her own family had suffered a financial hit in the pandemic. Her mother had spent several months out of work — the restaurant at the bowling alley where she worked as a cook closed in March and only recently reopened. They’ve been getting by on her stepfather’s paycheck; he works at a metal fabrication factory supplying auto manufacturers. When I called Benjamin’s mother, Kim Seeterlin, she told me that Shannon, too, has limited resources, but is often filling the cabinets with groceries she buys with her own money when there aren’t enough donations. “That’s how much she believes in this,” Seeterlin said.

That was in early September. Over the next few weeks, the President and lawmakers in Washington would again fail to come to agreement on a new stimulus plan. In the meantime, things got worse, bills went unpaid, unemployment ticked upwards, and Benjamin’s daily 211 calls went unabated. One afternoon in early October, Morand and his fellow volunteers arrived to open the food pantry and discovered the lock to the front door had been jimmied. Inside, they found boxes sliced open, cans of soup and bottles of juice stolen. “What’s so sad to me,” Morand said when we spoke afterward, “is all they had to do was ask. We would have given them whatever help they needed.”


Editors: Allison Hoffman and Janie Boschma

Supervising video producer: Jacque Smith

Photo editors: Heather Fulbright and Brett Roegiers

Digital design and development: Christopher Hickey, Renée Rigdon, Allie Schmitz and Ivory Sherman