A difficult employment climate and increased costs for daily necessities led Ohio food banks to distribute 45 percent more food in fiscal year 2012 than they did just three years earlier, during the height of the recession.
The 164 million pounds of food that Ohio food banks provided to pantries and other charities last year rose at a pace that is alarming officials throughout the state. Ohio’s food banks sent out 113 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2009, according to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
The increase matches the trend of greater “food insecurity” in Ohio, which is growing at a pace nearly unmatched throughout the country. From 2009-11, an average of 15.5 percent of Ohio households were “food insecure,” which means they did not have enough access to food at some point during the year. That was an increase of 6.4 percentage points from 1999-2001, which tied Ohio with Arkansas for No. 3 nationally in fastest growth rate.
Such need mixed with an uncertain economic outlook have food charity officials bracing for more increases while hoping for continued generosity.
“We’re limited,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “The pounds (distributed) are up, and the number of people is up as well. About half of the folks we serve are hitting emergencies that were unexpected, and they’re taking money out of their food budgets to serve other needs.”
Officials said they are working to meet those needs in unique ways. For The Foodbank, which serves Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties, that means forming partnerships with large stores to take in fresh fruits and vegetables. At Second Harvest Food Bank of Clark, Champaign and Logan counties, a mobile pantry will provide food about 60 times this year.
While economic indicators show that more people are working, there are still many with jobs whose lower wages or other obligations make food charity a necessity, said Michelle Riley, executive director of The Foodbank.
A better indicator of food need, she said, is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) enrollment. In Ohio, the average monthly participation in the program increased from nearly 1.1 million in 2007 to nearly 1.8 million in fiscal year 2011.
“The need is still going up,” she said.
Whatever the method, November and December combine for a period of increased need during the holidays.
“It’s tougher this time of year, even emotionally,” said Keith Williamson, regional director for Catholic Charities Southwest Ohio and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Clark, Champaign and Logan counties.
“Holidays are supposed to be a time to think about celebration, not think about, ‘Boy, I can’t give a gift because I need to find food for the table.’ That’s an emotional issue.”
State of need
Several years ago, the House of Bread community kitchen in Dayton that prepares and serves free lunches decided to open on Sundays for the first time. Sundays remained a slower day, helping staff members organize for the coming week. Before long, that changed.
“Sundays used to be our catch-up day,” said Melodie Bennett, House of Bread executive director. “Sundays now are just as busy as every other day, and that’s concerning.”
That weekend traffic is one symptom of what officials around the state said is growing need. The amount of food distributed by Ohio’s food banks has increased steadily in recent fiscal years, from 113 million pounds in 2009 to 141 million in 2010, 150 million in 2011 and 164 million 2012.
Nearly as concerning as the amount of food is the makeup of homes asking for help.
“We’re seeing households with more people in them,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “There might be a matriarch or patriarch with a job or bringing in Social Security or a pension, and they might take in adult children or others to help them. Those are more people to care for, which stretches what they have.”
Pantries and community kitchens like the House of Bread are seeing such changes. More families with children are coming to get the lunches, which the facility serves at a clip of about 220 per day.
“Most think that people with houses go to pantries, so they can take it home,” Bennett said. “We’re seeing them as well. The food only goes so far.”
In August 2011, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Clark, Champaign and Logan counties purchased a mobile food pantry with the aid of a grant from the Kraft Foods Foundation and the Feeding America program.
The mobile pantry allows the organization to reach families who are either not near a food pantry or who might not otherwise ask for help. It is one new method officials are using to serve those who need assistance.
“About 40 percent of people in our mobile food pantry program have never been to a food pantry before,” Williamson said. “It’s less intimidating to ask for help when it’s in that form, I think. They don’t feel as embarrassed as they might (going to a food pantry building).”
Foodbanks are also collecting and distributing much more fresh fruits and vegetables, responding to statistics that show up to 40 percent of those who seek food aid are in poor health. The Foodbank provided 531,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in 2011. Just in the first three months of 2012, it distributed 713,000 pounds.
Riley, The Foodbank’s executive director, said she sends four trucks per day to stores including Kroger, Walmart and Target to collect fresh fruits and vegetable donations.
“It’s a change in how food banking looks at food,” she said.
Officials said donations are key to their operation, but added they can sometimes do more with monetary donations because they have deals in place to buy products at reduced costs. They also stressed that an improved economy will be the best way to decrease the need for food charity.
“Charity alone can’t do this,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “People who are in food lines are there because they exhausted all available resources. The best solution to hunger is a good job that pays a livable wage. That’s what will help the most.”