Southeastern Ohio’s Fight with Food Insecurity
Food insecurity has been declining in the nation as a whole, but the state of Ohio is experiencing a steady increase due to factors such as unemployment and severe poverty rates in many different rural counties.
Athens County reported that 32 percent of its population was living in poverty according to an American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census between 2010 and 2014. Many struggling with food insecurity are forced to neglect other needs in order to provide themselves or their families with food. The SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen works with a variety of organizations and volunteers to decrease food insecurity in the 10 Appalachian counties it serves.
Asti Payne, Development Coordinator at SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen, works toward raising awareness and providing resources for those experiencing food insecurity not only through the food bank but also through many other services the organization provides.
“We have a variety of programs that help fight poverty for southeast Ohio,” Payne said. “They range from transportation to housing and weatherization to preschool education through Head Start.”
The organization puts a heavy focus on providing services to the elderly and children in impoverished areas. Payne said the Meals On Wheels program focuses on fighting not only senior hunger but isolation as well.
“A lot of Meals On Wheels clients are living alone, and if they have a pet at home, it’s their one companion,” she said. “They were either sharing the food we would give them with their pet or they were getting rid of the pet because they couldn’t afford to keep it.”
Thanks to a grant, the food bank is now able to provide pet food as a supplement for individuals who do have pets at home.
The SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen is a division of Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, or HAPCAP, a nonprofit corporation that creates programs and services to help those who lack commodities like food due to their financial situation. HAPCAP also provides services such as the GoBus and Athens Public Transit to help residents of Athens County and beyond to find fast and reliable transportation.
HAPCAP supports the SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen through many different services, and the kitchen at the food bank helps serve over 183,000 meals each year through various programs. Last year the food bank helped distribute 5.3 million pounds of food to those in need.
“We’re the only food bank in the southeast Ohio region,” Payne said. “We supply about 60 member agencies. Through our kitchen we also do a lot of direct client service through Meals On Wheels, summer feeding programs and different programs that help fill in that meal gap.”
The kitchen the food bank uses is state and federally licensed, meaning anyone within the counties the food bank serves can rent out the kitchen to cook or bake goods they need. Many local businesses utilize the space to make the goods they need at their restaurants. The money that is paid for the use of the kitchen then goes back into funding the food program.
“Because the food bank is licensed, we can take more advantage of these donations,” Payne said.
The large portion of people living in southeastern Ohio are suffering from food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
The increasing poverty rate in Ohio can be traced back to state benefit cuts to welfare and government assistance, which started back in 1996. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act went into effect under President Bill Clinton. One of the proposals within the bill, cosponsored by then Congressman John Kasich, requires state programs to include mandatory work, education and job-related activities for providing families with time-limited assistance. The welfare law limits residents to three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits if they are unemployed, making it difficult for them to receive federal need.
“I know when we’re looking at food insecurity in particular there’s a lot of factors that go into it,” she said. “We saw a bunch of cuts to SNAP so people who weren’t reliant on our services previously are now having to.”
According to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, Ohio is losing about $30 million a month in SNAP/food stamp dollars, but the rising cost of food has also contributed to the increase in food insecurity.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks also reports that 55 percent of people experiencing food insecurity eat food past its expiration, and 70 percent of people have had to choose between food and utilities.
“A lot of the foods have been going up 10 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent [in the past year] and if you total all of that it’s not painting a good picture for us,” Payne said.
Large portions of residents living in southeast Ohio are struggling to provide their families with sufficient food. In fact, one in six individuals in the southeast Ohio region are food insecure, and the number changes to one in four individuals if children are included.
“We have higher food insecurity among our children than with the overall population,” she said. “We’re really trying to make sure that the gap is filled and that everyone has food on their tables.”
Volunteers who work at the food bank take pride in bettering the community that has given back to them all of their life.
Jared Butcher, a volunteer at SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen, has been working with the food bank for many years delivering meals to the elderly through the Meals On Wheels program. After retiring from Ohio University in 2011, Butcher decided to start a program that would help provide food to children in need, specifically at Trimble Elementary and Middle School.
“After some time, I discovered that walls weren’t just for staring at: you could climb them,” Butcher said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a backpack program in every school in Athens County?’ Seven schools at 100 students getting backpacks would equal $70,000. I thought, ‘this project is bigger than I am.’”
The SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen played a part in providing Butcher the resources he needed to write proposals to receive funding for his program as well.
“The SE Ohio Foodbank was especially helpful in terms of guiding me to write a proposal that was consistent with their mission,” Butcher said.
The proposal allowed the backpack project to receive grants from both the Southeast Ohio Hunger Fund and the Rocky Community Improvement Fund for $5,000 each. The money received through the grants allows the First United Methodist Church, the church Butcher collaborated with to work on the project, to buy food from the food bank. The food purchased is then stored and distributed in packs to children at Trimble Elementary and Middle School.
“The program has filled me with hope,” Butcher said. “Everyone I have met wants the backpack program to succeed.”
“It takes the concerted efforts of many people to make it go, but it is worth the effort,” he added.
Butcher said that in order to fight food insecurity, there need to be more programs putting forward initiatives to help those in need of support.
“Everyone involved in this project wants to eradicate food insecurity,” Butcher said. “It will only happen if we all work together.”
You can learn more about the SE Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen and HAPCAP at hapcap.org/foodbank.