Columbus Dispatch: Food banks work during pandemic to feed increasing number of hungry Ohio families
Updated: Jan 22
The Columbus Dispatch January, 2021
Roshelle Pate hustled back and forth along the Athens County Fairgrounds on a dreary November afternoon.
Her long braids, pulled back in a ponytail, brushed the back of her U.S. Air Force veteran coat as she pulled a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farms to Families box full of fresh produce, dairy and meat off a pallet and handed it to a woman in the passenger seat of a pickup truck.
Pate, who runs the Columbus-based food distribution program Food Soldier, looked at the line of cars stretching around the fairgrounds. They were lined up bumper to bumper for three miles. And even though the distribution was only supposed to run from 1-4 p.m., about 300 folks started arriving at the fairgrounds as early as 10 a.m. to wait in line.
After experiencing a brief period of food insecurity herself while taking care of her ailing mother several years ago, Pate started Food Soldier as a way to help end food insecurity. She organizes food giveaways throughout the state on a regular basis.
But looking over the cars at the fairgrounds –– a mix of pickups, minivans with children's car seats in the back and newer model SUVs –– Pate said one certainty is that this pandemic has amplified the country's hunger crisis.
"People mistake that this is just for the poor or the downtrodden," Pate said. "Hunger is not an issue of charity; hunger is an issue of justice."
Hunger rates at an 'all-time high'
The financial and emotional strains of COVID-19 and the job losses it created made food unaffordable for more Ohioans in 2020. Food insecurity rapidly increased as many, some for the first time, waited in long lines at pantries and other outlets for free food.
"Hunger has certainly risen to the top of the most critical issues that we now face in the country," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. "We're seeing hunger rates and food insecurity rates and demands on the system at an all-time high."
According to numbers from the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, which serves 20 counties including Franklin, 65.7 million pounds of food were distributed from last March 1 through Dec. 31, a 23% increase from the 53.4 million pounds distributed during the same months in 2019.
From March 1 to Dec. 31, the pantry saw a total of 1.012 million visits, representing 180,977 unique families. That's also up from 951,735 total visits representing 158,144 unique families in 2019.
The number of new families during that time period in 2020 was 52,556, which represents a 24.7% increase in the number of new families compared to 2019. Of all families served last year, 28.5% were new.
In Franklin County alone from March 1 to Dec. 31, food pantries saw 636,907 visits by 117,592 unique families, compared to 584,970 visits and 99,944 unique families in 2019.
During those months last year, 34,740 new families were served, up 26% from 2019.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, 11% of all Ohio households reported that between Nov. 25 and Dec.7, they sometimes had not had enough to eat in the previous seven days. That compares to 12.7% nationwide.
Helping out in Athens County
The numbers reflect a reality that is a far cry from the excitement that many in the food bank community felt just a year ago after more than $500,000 in donations poured into the Athens County Food Pantry following a speech by then-Louisiana State University quarterback Joe Burrow, now with the Bengals.
Burrow, an Athens County native and 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, highlighted his hometown’s food insecurity issues during his acceptance speech. The speech triggered hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from across the country to the Athens County Food Pantry, as well as other pantries nationwide, and raised awareness of food insecurity issues.
The donations brought new hope to the pantry and its volunteers, said Athens County Food Pantry Director Karin Bright. She and her board went on a weekend retreat in mid-February to discuss how to invest the donations. A month later, they were in lockdown because of the pandemic.
"We saw how hard it is for people to ask for help here," Bright said. "We’re in a culture in Athens County where it’s hard to ask for help. People want to be self-sufficient and say they've never done this before. We had to tell people it was perfectly understandable to need help right now."
'We bought a lot of food'
Matt Habash, the executive director of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, said officials knew their food inventory wasn't going to be sufficient last March when Gov. Mike DeWine closed businesses and issued a stay-at-home order.
"We started buying food. We bought a lot of food," Habash said, adding that it was somewhere between $3.5 million to $4 million worth.
Habash said the food bank already runs two markets in Franklin County, at Columbus State and Reynoldsburg, with plans to expand to 10.
Before the pandemic, the Reynoldsburg market already was serving 200 to 400 people a month. Now it's up to 1,200 a week, he said.
The Rev. John Edgar, executive director of Community Development for All People, which runs the Parsons Avenue market, said about 45,000 individual people visited the market in 2020, about 30% more than in 2019.
"It's amazing. We’ve given away 3 million pounds of food in 2020, and it's still not nearly enough," Edgar said.
One of the market's regular visitors is Renata Pahanish, who picked up her items –– including apples, carrots, sugar, snap peas, eggs, cabbage and two loaves of bread –– in her Mitsubishi Outlander.
Pahanish, 40, had worked as an Amazon driver but her doctor told her to stop working five months ago as she deals with cervical cancer.
"I’ll be using that pantry for as long as it is there," said Pahanish, a South Side resident who said the food also feeds her four nieces and nephews, ages 3 to 13.
Need for help will continue in 2021
Hamler-Fugitt said the need is going to continue well into 2021, calling the $600 federal stimulus payments "woefully inadequate" with the $300 in weekly enhanced federal unemployment benefits ending by mid-March.
"We are a long ways from the bottom, I fear," she said "The most impacted have been those who work in the service sector with little or no job security: food service, hospitality, caregivers, child care, community and adult care."
"We're talking about millions of families who have lost all income. I don’t see those jobs returning prior to COVID for a very long time."
Kim Smith said she visits the All People's Fresh Market on Parsons Avenue at least a few times a week.
She's had to do that since her husband was laid off from his construction job last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. "He hasn't been able to find work," said Smith, 61, of the South Side.
So she was bagging eggs, milk and bread on a cloudy afternoon this past Wednesday before heading home.
With additional funding through the $900 billion COVID-19 Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, the federal government is helping buffer food insecurity caused by the pandemic.
The bill increased SNAP benefits by 15% from Jan. 1 through June 30, which equals about $25 per person more in benefits, said Jack Frech, former director of Athens County Job and Family Services. In Athens County, for example, that brings more than $230,000 in benefits to the 9,204 families using SNAP.
The bill also enabled the USDA to extend its Farmers to Families Food Box Program –– which Pate uses to provide food to Ohioans statewide –– for a fifth round of purchases. The USDA has distributed more than 132 million food boxes so far by purchasing food from farmers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and given away for free.
Although more spending, more vaccines and a new year bring hope that the pandemic's end may be on the horizon, food bank organizers are wary that food insecurity caused by COVID-19 isn't going away.
"As near as I can discern, the demand will remain extremely high, certainly through the first half of 2021," Edgar said.
Bright in Athens County agreed. Until students return to OU's campus, until businesses reopen for good, "I anticipate that things will take a long time to recover," she said.