Food banks seek financial help as food for one in six Ohioans is at stake
By: Theo Peck-Suzuki | Report for America
ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Americas Report) – In October 2021, before the war in Ukraine, before the baby formula shortage, and long before the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to fight inflation, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Association of Food Banks of Ohio, realized a crisis was brewing.
“The supply chain was fragile,” he said, “and now it’s completely broken. He never caught up” on the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
His organization began working with members of state government last fall to ensure that food-insecure Ohioans kept eating as funding dissipated and food prices rose.
As recently as May, he was optimistic that relief would come. Government officials had identified a route through which money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) could be diverted to food banks. All it would require would be the go-ahead from the state Control Board, a seven-person body made up of legislators and state officials whose purpose is to make adjustments to the state budget without convening the entire General Assembly.
Since then, the weeks have come and gone, but there has been no visible movement in the association’s application. It has yet to appear before the Control Council, despite the fact that its members did not object when Hamler-Fugitt presented the idea to them.
Meanwhile, food banks across the state have seen funding plummet and food stocks dwindle. The consequences are serious. One in six Ohioans relies on food bank services for at least some of their meals. Earlier this month, WOUB reported that the Southeast Ohio Food Bank was closing several distribution sites indefinitely due to lack of supplies.
“Families just aren’t getting it,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “I just don’t know how else to explain this to people.”
A funding request moves with uncertainty through the state government
In collaboration with state officials, the Association of Food Banks divided its initial request of $183 million into two parts: $50 million in emergency aid and $130 million to expand long-term food access. This was to bring the request within the range of what the Control Board could authorize, Hamler-Fugitt said.
The Control Board requires a state agency to file the actual application. Hamler-Fugitt said the Association of Food Banks was working with one of those agencies, the Department of Job and Family Services. However, a department spokesman said they had not yet made a decision on whether to move forward with the application.
Spokespeople for Governor Mike DeWine and the Office of Budget and Management stated that the governor was also aware of the request, but had yet to make a decision on whether to pursue it.
“The DeWine-Husted Administration will continue to work with legislative leaders to allocate unique federal resources to address the needs of Ohioans,” the Office of Budget and Management spokesperson wrote in an email.
Hamler-Fugitt noted that some state officials had raised concerns that this could be a recurring payment. “This is one time,” she clarified. “They don’t want to spend ARPA dollars on recurring expenses. I get it.”
Food shortages are getting worse in southeast Ohio
The Southeast Ohio Food Bank continues to face severe food shortages. Donations through federal assistance have been drastically reduced. The organization is doing its best to stock local food pantries and keep up with programming, but its warehouse is nearly empty.
The loss of several distribution sites earlier this summer was a huge blow.
“Every day we get phone calls here from members of the community who are concerned that we don’t do these direct distributions,” said Rose Frech of the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action Program, which oversees the Food Bank of Southeast Ohio. “People who are used to the fact that we would be in their community, if not once a month, then once every two months.”
In an area as large and rural as southeastern Ohio, every distribution point that fails means more households lose access to food. Some can afford to burn expensive gasoline looking for a new distribution site; others can’t.
The Food Bank recently reviewed its operating budget to see if it could raise the money to buy more supplies. That’s a very unusual move, and one that can be difficult to replicate.
Frech said the organization freed up about $40,000 through this process. The first $20,000 bought 11 pallets of food, less than the Food Bank would contribute to a single direct distribution. They still have to spend the rest.
The gap between families who can still get food and those who cannot
The rest of the Food Bank programs continue to have an impact. In Jacksonville, the Food Bank partners with Athens County Children’s Services during the summer to distribute food on Thursday mornings outside of Trimble Elementary/Middle School.
One attendee, who identified herself only by her first name, Alicia, said her SNAP benefits don’t last long enough, but her four children still eat every day, thanks in part to the peanut butter and jelly loaves. that she picks up. up every week.
For families the Food Bank can no longer reach, the outlook is bleaker.
“Families are going to use a multitude of coping strategies,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “They will borrow money from family and friends, or they will borrow food. They will send their children to eat at a neighbor’s house. They will cut the size and portions of the food they have. Adults in that household will forego food. For older people, it means they’ll take whatever limited food they may have, like a can of soup, and dilute it down.”
From there, families can stop paying utilities or go to pawn shops and payday lenders for cash.
Eventually, “when all those coping strategies have been exhausted, that’s when they’ll start skipping meals,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “Adults, as we well know, will do everything in their power to keep enough food to feed their children. And then eventually they’ll start giving them more water. They will send them to bed earlier.
Many of these are households with parents who already have multiple jobs.
“That’s what hurts me the most,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “They are not poor enough for food stamps. These are the working poor, who follow all the rules.”
Questions remain across the country about how long the price hike will last. Hamler-Fugitt identified a number of factors that he believes will continue to limit food production for the foreseeable future. These include shortages of packaging material, products stuck in ports, and high fertilizer costs.
Climate change has also decimated food production in many parts of the United States this year, Hamler-Fugitt said, pointing to a report from The Texas Standard Last week droughts have forced ranchers to sell their herds as pastures wither.
“Do you think meat prices are high now?” she commented. “Seat belt.”
He added that during a recent trip to Missouri he learned that heat waves had devastated dairy production in that state this year.
With extreme weather projected to worsen without significant action on climate change, concern is growing that food production could continue to decline in the coming years.
The Ohio Association of Food Banks continues its request for help. In the meantime, Frech encourages residents of southeast Ohio to support the food bank here with donations and messages of support.
“It’s really valuable for people to talk to decision makers at all levels about this issue of food insecurity and show that they care,” he said. “That even if you’re not someone who has to visit a pantry or come to a mobile market, all of us as a community think this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Theo Peck-Suzuki is a member of the corps with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Covers Children and Poverty for WOUB Public Media.