Food banks seek financial relief as food for one in six Ohioans is on the line< < Back to
ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) – In October 2021 – before the war in Ukraine, before the baby formula shortage, and long before the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to combat inflation – Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Food Banks realized a crisis was brewing.
“The supply chain was brittle,” she said, “and it’s completely broken now. It never caught up” from the damage the COVID-19 pandemic caused.
Her organization began working with members of the state government last fall to ensure that food insecure Ohioans would continue to eat as funding dissipated and food prices rose.
As recently as May, she felt optimistic that relief was coming. 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 was the go-ahead from the state’s Controlling Board, a seven-person body composed of state legislators and officials whose purpose is to make adjustments to the state’s budget without convening the entire General Assembly.
Since then, the weeks have come and gone, but there has been no visible movement on the association’s request. It has yet to come before the Controlling Board, despite its members raising no objections when Hamler-Fugitt presented the idea to them.
Meanwhile, food banks across the state have seen funding plummet and food reserves dwindle. The consequences are severe. One in six Ohioans rely 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 making it,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “I just don’t know how else to explain this to people.”
A request for funding moves uncertainly through state government
Working with state officials, the Association of Food Banks split its initial $183 million request into two parts: $50 million in emergency relief and $130 million to expand long-term food access. This was to put the request within the range of what the Controlling Board could authorize, said Hamler-Fugitt.
The Controlling Board requires a state agency to bring the actual request forward. Hamler-Fugitt said the Association of Food Banks was working with one such agency, the Department of Job and Family Services. However, a spokesperson for the department indicated that they had not yet made a decision on whether to advance the request.
Spokespeople for Gov. Mike DeWine and the Office of Budget and Management stated that the governor was also aware of the request, but that he had yet to make a decision on whether to push it forward.
“The DeWine-Husted Administration will continue to work with legislative leaders to allocate one-time federal resources to address the needs of Ohioans,” the spokesperson for the Office of Budget and Management wrote in an email.
Hamler-Fugitt noted that some state officials had raised concerns that this might be a recurring payment. “This is one-time,” she clarified. “They don’t want to spend ARPA dollars on reoccurring expenses. I get that.”
Food scarcity is getting worse in Southeast Ohio
The Southeast Ohio Food Bank continues to face a severe food shortage. Donations through federal assistance have fallen off dramatically. The organization is doing what it can to supply local food pantries and maintain programming, but its warehouse is mostly empty.
The loss of several distribution sites earlier this summer was a major blow.
“We here every day receive phone calls from community members who are troubled and worried about us not doing these direct distributions,” said Rose Frech of the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action Program, which oversees the Southeast Ohio Food Bank. “Folks who are used to the fact that we would be in their community, if not once a month, then once every couple of months.”
In an area as large and rural as Southeast Ohio, every distribution point that fails means more households losing food access. Some can afford to burn costly gasoline in search of a new distribution site; others can’t.
The Food Bank recently scoured its operating budget to see if it could come up with the money to buy more supplies itself. That’s a highly unusual move, and one that may be difficult to repeat.
Frech said the organization freed up about $40,000 through this process. The first $20,000 bought 11 pallets of food – less than what the Food Bank would bring to a single direct distribution. They have yet to spend the rest.
The gap grows between families who can still get food and those who can’t
The Food Bank’s remaining programs continue to have an impact. In Jacksonville, the Food Bank teams up with Athens County Children Services during the summer to distribute food on Thursday mornings outside 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 loaves of bread with peanut butter and jam that she picks up each week.
For families the Food Bank can no longer reach, the prognosis is grimmer.
“Families are going to use a multitude of coping strategies,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “They’re going to borrow money from families and friends, or they’ll borrow food. They’ll send their kids to a neighbor’s house to eat. They’ll cut the size and portions of the food they have. The adults in that household will forego food. For seniors, it means that they’re going to take what limited food they might have, such as a can of soup, and water it down.”
From there, families might stop paying utilities or go to pawn shops and payday lenders for cash.
Finally, “when all of those coping strategies have been exhausted, then that’s when they’ll start to skip meals,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “The adults, as we well know, will do everything in their power to keep enough food to feed their kids. And then eventually, they’ll just start giving them more water. They’ll send them to bed earlier.”
Many of these are households with parents who already work multiple jobs.
“That’s what hurts me the most,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “They’re not poor enough for food stamps. These are the working poor, who are playing by all the rules.”
Questions remain nationwide about how long the spike in prices will last. Hamler-Fugitt identified a range of factors she believes will continue to constrain food production for the foreseeable future. These include scarcities 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 that droughts have forced cattle ranchers to sell their herds as grazing land withers.
“You think meat prices are high now?” she remarked. “Buckle up.”
She added that during a recent trip to Missouri she learned that heat waves had devastated dairy production in that state this year.
With extreme weather projected to worsen absent significant action on climate change, concerns are growing that food production may continue to diminish in the years to come.
The Ohio Association of Food Banks is continuing to pursue its request for aid. Meanwhile, Frech is encouraging residents of Southeast Ohio to support the food bank here with donations and messages of support.
“It is really valuable for people to talk to decision makers at all levels about this issue of food insecurity and demonstrate that they care,” she said. “That even if you’re not somebody who has to visit a pantry or come to a mobile market, that we as a community all think that this is a problem that should be addressed.”
Theo Peck-Suzuki is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He covers Children and Poverty for WOUB Public Media.