$15 million brings relief to Southeast Ohio Food Bank, but more may be needed

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LOGAN, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — Under ordinary circumstances, the shelves of the Southeast Ohio Food Bank are filled with goods.

This summer was different. Much of the warehouse sat empty as both public and private donations dried up.

As a result, the Food Bank had to cut back its distribution efforts at a moment when demand for its services was skyrocketing.

Now, the organization is feeling some relief, thanks to $15 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) the Ohio Controlling Board recently authorized for food banks statewide.

“It will go a long way in helping us to get back on our feet and restock,” said Rose Frech, director of special projects at the Southeast Ohio Food Bank.

The money comes from a request by the livestock and poultry industries on behalf of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. It will be used to purchase protein from Ohio farmers.

The funding is a welcome development for the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, which has continued to see substantial demand even as schools reopen and kids find some meals outside the home.

“If you compare the number of people that we served in September of this year to September of last year — 65% increase,” Frech said.

As helpful as the new money is, it does not resolve deeper worries Ohio food banks are experiencing as they consider the months to come.

“We’re really super grateful to the governor for his support of the food banks, and the members of the Ohio House and Senate for appropriating this $15 million,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Food Banks.

But, she added, “this funding will not come close to filling the gap.” She estimated the $15 million will purchase about 5 million pounds of food across the entire state — a significant amount, but well below the need.

According to Hamler-Fugitt, food banks across the state have seen both public and private donations plummet this year. At the same time, demand has surged: By her count, about one in five Ohioans rely on a food bank to meet at least some of their food needs.

And she expects the situation to worsen over the holidays, when more people call on food banks for assistance.

“When the food’s gone, all we can do is close our doors and hope for the best,” she said. “We know there’s a lot of desperation out there.”

Food items available at the Mobile food bank site in Gallia County
Workers at the mobile food bank site in Gallia County wait to distribute items over the summer. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB | Report for America]
The Ohio Association of Food Banks has been asking the state for $50 million of ARPA funding for about a year.

That request is separate from the $15 million acquired through industry groups’ intervention. It remains under discussion, but no decision has yet been made.

Frech said a larger funding package would do more than stem the bleeding. It could open up entirely new possibilities for the Southeast Ohio Food Bank.

“More funding means that we can open up more doors to people accessing food,” she said. That includes doing more mobile markets, in which the food bank trucks supplies out to local communities.

Those are especially important in rural Appalachia, where transportation is a challenge. “The vision there is really to do as many of those as possible,” Frech explained.

In the long term, more funding could also enable the food bank to establish new permanent distribution centers throughout the region.

But first, it needs to fill its shelves.