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Ohio food banks starving for funds to replace rapidly dwindling supplies

empty shelves.jpg
Daniel Konik
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Empty shelves at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective in July 2022.

Ohio’s food banks say they’re starving for resources, and many people — who have been working in the field for years — say it's the worst situation they have ever seen.

And while they’ve asked for some relief from the state, organizations are running out of what they have on hand, and it’s thought that some food banks may even shut down.

Matt Habash has been in the food pantry game for a long time.

“I've been doing this job for 38 years, and I don't think I've ever been as worried as I am right now about having enough food for the ever increasing demand," Habash said.

Habash heads up the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, Ohio’s largest food bank. His facility, south of Columbus, both allocates food to agency partners in 20 counties, and houses a food pantry in the building.

“On any given day, it's at least 10% of the total volume of food that's distributed, visits by people. And we have cut that back to just a fresh food distribution. Some of our agencies are spreading out, giving less food to the families that are showing up," Habash said.

Around 50 miles southeast of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Grove City, Rose Frech directs food and nutrition programs at Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action and the Southeast Ohio Foodbank in Logan.

“One of the choices that we've had to make as a food bank over the last several months is to scale back services. So we have ended most of our direct distributions in the community. These would be events where we would bring our trucks directly into communities across that 10-county territory. We serve hundreds of people at a time," Frech said. "We just don't have the food to do that anymore.”

And Frech said the 70 food pantries that the Southeast Ohio Foodbank serves, which are in some of the poorest areas of the state, have also had to pull back on what they can offer in their communities.

“The last several months have been the hardest that we have seen in years and years and years. And so we're contending with just extreme uptick in demand. We've seen a 60% increase in demand for food across our network since the start of the year. And just a simultaneous drop in food supplies available," Frech said. "So we have a very, very severe food shortage on our hands right now.”

That’s the story all around the state, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

Normally food banks would have at least a three to six month supply of food, but Hamler-Fugitt said, “Mahoning Valley Food Bank up in Youngstown, they've only got an inventory of two weeks supply of food."

She added, "Clark, Champaign and Logan over in Springfield, down to a three-week supply of food. Shared Harvest Foodbank in Butler County, down to a three-week supply of food. The food is going out quicker than it's coming in.”

Hamler-Fugitt said it’s not just inflation driving up the cost of food and the large numbers of people needing help, it’s also the supply chains that are still recovering and the food processors who are behind and working to expand. She said the danger of some food banks shutting their doors is real.

“Food banks have been lightening the bag, lightening the boxes, rationing food," Hamler-Fugitt said. "We're currently providing families, Ohioans, that turn to us with two fewer days of meals because we're trying to stretch what we have on hand. But the situation is very severe.”

With the legislature on a break until after the November election, the food banks turned to Gov. Mike DeWine in June, asking him for $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The state has spent 65% of the $5.4 billion in American Rescue Plan dollars sent to Ohio — spending almost $1.5 billion on paying back the money it borrowed to pay unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Half a billion dollars have been allocated for community grants in Appalachia, more than $400 million for water and sewer work to prepare for the Intel project, $250 million on grants for law enforcement for mental health and crime-fighting, $137 million for parks, $100 million for school security, $84 million for pediatric behavioral health care facilities and $71 million for the animal disease laboratory, among other expenses. About $2 billion in federal COVID0-19 relief funds remains.

DeWine hasn’t committed to the food banks’ request.

Last month, DeWine confirmed he'd received a letter from the food banks reiterating the request, and said, "it's imperative that we make sure there is food in the food banks. And it's also imperative that we make sure that they have the infrastructure to do what they did, what they need to do...we're in the process of assessing exactly where the food banks are."

DeWine's spokesman said the request remains under review.

But Habash is hoping for something soon.

“We need some help. I mean, food banks are doing everything they can. We were there during the whole pandemic. But we just got to get people to understand that there's a lot of lagging, catching up and increases that are causing families to struggle right now. So we're not out of this mess," Habash said. "We're not even out of the COVID mess yet, for that matter. But we got a long way to go to help families recover.”

Food banks say about a quarter of those they’re serving are senior citizens, and about a fifth of all customers are first-timers. And now food banks are competing with school food programs too, making the supply of food available for everyone even thinner.