The need for food assistance in Springfield — named the most food insecure city in Ohio a year ago — has increased over the past year, according to local and state food banks.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Clark, Champaign and Logan Counties has distributed more than 4.7 million pounds of food this year, Executive Director Tyra Jackson said. That equals about 3.9 million meals, she said, which are going to about 2,000 new families each month in the three-county region.
“People are trying to make ends meet,” Jackson said. “People don’t have enough to sustain their households … It’s people who are just struggling to survive.”
The food bank distributed more than 5.1 million pounds of food last year.
Clark County’s poverty rate of 14.5 percent last year reached its lowest point since 2008, according to data released this month from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Last year, it was 18.4 percent and it peaked at 20.6 percent in 2010.
The poverty rate for the Springfield metropolitan area was 10 percent last year, down from 14.5 percent in 2010.
The food insecurity rate in Clark County was about 16.3 percent in 2014, according to the Map the Meal Gap project completed annually by Feeding America — meaning more than 22,000 people here didn’t get the food they need. More than $10.4 million would be needed to fully meet the need for food in Clark County, the report says.
While more the local poverty rate has improved, families often must make tough choices between paying for rent, medicine and utilities, Jackson said, not leaving enough money for food.
Last month Ohio employers eliminated about 2,800 jobs, as the unemployment rate ticked up to about 4.9 percent in Ohio. Locally, Clark County’s unemployment rate was about 4.7 percent, up slightly from 4.5 percent a year ago.
People are employed, Jackson said, but they’re not making enough money to support a family.
“There’s still that need (for food),” she said.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hunger greater than ever in Springfield
The assistance offered by Second Harvest’s mobile food pantry is critical for the family of Springfield resident Amber Lannon, she said. She has four daughters, including a 2-year-old daughter with medical issues.
“It’s kind of hard for me right now, but I’m blessed,” Lannon said. “I do have people who will help.”
Food is typically the last thing her family needs at the end of the month, she said, and Lannon uses the food bank only when needed.
“If they weren’t out here, there would be a lot of us out here hungry with children,” Lannon said.
Hunger in Ohio
The Ohio Association of Food Banks saw more than 3,300 agencies distribute more 208 million pounds of food to more than 3.3 million households statewide during the 2016 fiscal year.
More than half of the food provided was purchased with state and federal dollars, while the rest is coming from private donors, Director of Communications and Grants Management Joree Novotny said.
The demand from seniors has ticked up over the past several months, she said. During the third quarter of this year, about 18.6 percent of people served statewide were older than 60 — a trend that will climb as Ohio continues to age, she said.
“We’re really concerned about that because once seniors hit our food pantry lines, they’re likely not able to leave them,” Novotny said. “They’re living on fixed incomes and there’s really not a lot of wiggle room with what they have to work with to stretch their food purchasing dollars.”
Food is the most flexible item in a families’ budget each month, Novotny said, and other bills are typically paid ahead of groceries.
About one in four children in Ohio live in food insecure households, she said, meaning their parents or guardians can’t afford nutritious food on their own.
“We know a lot of times it’s not the kids who are suffering, but the parents and the adults who are giving up their own food to make sure their children have enough to fill their bellies and avoid going to sleep hungry,” Novotny said.
The agency works to make sure the food provided is healthy and nutritious, she said. It’s also urging Ohio lawmakers to reauthorize money for summer food programs, Novotny said, similar to the state’s privately funded backpack program. It provided 100,000 meals to families this summer.
“We’re always looking to more innovative ways to provide nutritious foods to kids,” she said. “We don’t want to see them come to school on Monday having suffered over the weekend without access to food.”
Clark State Community College now hosts the mobile food pantry each month for students and neighbors in need, Health Clinic Nurse Roberta Richards said.
The first event saw nearly 50 families and more than 160 individuals.
“We’ve had a very good response,” Richards said.
She began a coat closet for students three years ago, which eventually began carrying food about a year ago due to the need. That led to the mobile food pantry starting monthly visits, Richards said.
Any money students can save can be used elsewhere, she said, including tuition and books.
“For some of our students, a few dollars is a lot,” Richards said. “We may not think twice about what we’re going to eat tonight, so if they can save a few dollars by not buying breakfast or lunch, they have many, many other needs that money can go toward.”
Many of Clark State’s students are parents who want to provide for their children with food or coats, Richards said.
“Their priority is for their children and they’ll get whatever is left over,” she said.
Second Harvest now provides between 25 and 30 mobile food pantry events per month, Jackson said. The nonprofit wants to add more consistent times and locations, she said, similar to Clark State’s schedule.
“People know they go to it and it’s always going to be there,” Jackson said.
The agency’s backpack program — which provides meals to children as they leave school each weekend — has grown from 400 to 780 participants each week, she said. It’s currently offered at Fulton Elementary School and the Clark Center preschool, Jackson said.
Second Harvest spends about $150,000 annually on the program, but Jackson wants to up that to $300,000 if the agency can find funding for it.
“People are still asking about it, but we don’t necessarily have the funds to increase it,” Jackson said. “There’s a greater need.”
The organization also wants to raise money to expand its food pantry, which serves about 1,800 people per month, up about 300 people per month. It has distributed more than 1 million pounds of food this year.
The renovations will allow the food pantry to be moved inside, keeping people from waiting outside in the cold winter months. It received $12,500 in grants from the Springfield Foundation and the Turner Foundation to begin the first phase of the overall $150,000 project.
“We’ll be able to provide more service to people coming through our lines,” Jackson said.
The agency also wants to add a case manager to its staff to help people rise up out of poverty, she said.
“We want to help them find the solutions that are right from them,” Jackson said.
The bi-monthly food pantry at the Maiden Lane Church of Good serves about 125 people each time it’s open, which includes a hot meal, Director Bob Mako said. It’s open the second and fourth Saturday each month.
“We’ve stayed busy,” Mako said. “That’s been fairly consistent.”
The pantry sees 15 to 25 new families every two weeks, he said.
“It’s mainly working poor,” Mako said. “It’s generally people who have work but not enough work. It’s also senior citizens whose benefits are inadequate.”
Jobs are available in Clark County, Mako said, but many of them are entry level and don’t pay enough to support families.
“What they really need is flexible work, which is a lot to ask of an employer,” Mako said. “They’ve got a business to run. We try to help people find work.”
The Salvation Army of Springfield hosts a food pantry each week, serving about 40 families per week, Case Manager Jennifer Stowers said. It will also make hot meals for homeless Springfielders who walk in off the street.
“If they’re hungry, we’re going to feed them,” said Stowers, who operates the food bank. “We see a wide range of people.”