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Springfield food bank need reaching crisis level

Clark County agency on pace to provide 3 million meals this year.

A relentless rise in hunger in Clark, Champaign and Logan counties has the Second Harvest Food Bank planning to provide as many meals this year as it did when it was in crisis mode at the height of the nation’s financial crisis.

It’s a major reason the Springfield agency operated by Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio plans to spend $120,000 to increase its cooling capacity by the end of the year.

After serving more than 3.1 million meals in 2009, Second Harvest provided 2.3 million meals in 2010. But demand increased by nearly 300,000 meals in each of the next two years. This year it is on pace to serve more than 3 million meals again.

“Hunger is not going away,” said Keith Williamson, the food bank’s executive director.

And the national Second Harvest organization is advising its food banks to plan for expanding service by 4.5 percent for each of the next five years.

The increased pressure is coming from the needs of the so-called working poor, Williamson said, those who have jobs of some sort but often cannot afford to make ends meet.

The steady increase also is requiring the food bank to change strategies.

Because of a plateau in the amount of shelf-stable foods it receives and an increase in the amount of fresh produce it can get from farms and grocers, the food bank wants to handle more perishable food.

The local food bank got some good news last week when the Meijer store on Hillcrest Avenue committed to joining the Kroger and Walmart stores on North Bechtle Avenue in making regular food donations.

The food bank expects that will net it 80,000 more pounds of all types of food in the coming year just from Meijer, increasing the proportion of perishable food it’s receiving.

“We’re getting a lot more usable produce,” said Jeff Miller, food bank operations supervisor. And while it’s necessary to feed the hungry, he said “there’s a major cost to the food bank in handling it.”

The combined 4,000 cubic feet of freezer/cooler space the food bank added just four years ago is now full, “and we’re paying for off-site storage,” Miller said.

Williamson said he expects a campaign to raise the money needed to add the more than 22,500 cubic feet in cooler space the food bank needs. That will allow it to convert all of its current cooling space into a freezer.

These changes also will create changes for the food bank’s clients, both its member agencies that distribute the food and the people who eat it.

“Part of the trick is what our (member) agencies can do,” Miller said.

All that frozen food can’t be passed out to pantries unless they, too, have more cold storage capacity in the form of freezers and refrigerators. It also may call for those agencies to repackage food because it tends to arrive in bulk amounts.

That may, in turn require changes in food preparation, requiring consumer education and recipes so people can turn the bulk food into meals.

“We’re seeing people changing because they’re not getting the canned ravioli,” he said. “They’re having to make their own meals with the stuff they’re getting.”

At the same time, Second Harvest wants to reach more hungry people with its mobile food pantry program. In its first full year of operations, its refrigerated truck made 66 visits in the three-county area, serving 21,000 clients.

As part of that effort, the food bank will hold its largest mobile event ever Saturday when it gears up to serve 1,000 families at Catholic Central High School, an event sponsored by 15 area Catholic churches.

Previous mobile pantries have topped out at 260 families.

People living east of Limestone Street will be served beginning at 9 a.m. and those west of Limestone Street beginning at 1 p.m.

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