For Ohio’s food banks, a bad situation is getting worse

By Marty Schladen
Ohio Capital Journal

Ohioans have had some respite from high fuel costs in recent months. But those who provide food to millions of poor people in the state say their situation is only getting worse.

Global supply chain issues, labor shortages, the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and other megatrends combine to make them fear for the first time that they simply won’t have not enough food for everyone who needs it, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said Monday.

“We’re down about a sixth and it’s going down,” she said, referring to food supplies, particularly from the US Department of Agriculture. At the same time, she said, demand is rising due to high grocery prices, rising housing, utility and health care costs.

That means food at food banks in Ohio is “going out a lot faster than it’s coming in,” she said.

Also adding to the problem, logistical bottlenecks increased lead times exponentially. Foods that used to arrive within two or three weeks of ordering now take up to two to three months to arrive.

It means food banks need money now if they are to have enough food this winter, when rising utility costs look likely to put even more pressure on people.

“I think things are going to get a lot darker and darker before they get a lot better,” Hamler-Fugitt said, adding “We’re desperately worried about the food.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey estimates that as of August 8, nearly 762,000 – or 6.5% – of Ohioans have sometimes or often not had enough to eat during the previous seven days. That’s a 20% increase from August 2021.

To be eligible for pantry assistance in Buckeye State, you must earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or $55,500 per year for a family of four. In Ohio, nearly 30%, or 3.4 million, earned less than in 2019, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported.

Qualified people who seek help from a food bank get a referral. But, Hamler-Fugitt warned, “Just because you’re on a list doesn’t mean they’ll be able to serve you.”

She provided an anecdote to illustrate her point. Leaving her home in Fairfield County at 5:30 a.m. last Thursday, Hamler-Fugitt saw a line of taillights in front of a church pantry that didn’t open until 9 a.m. People were arriving early to get to the front of the line.

“If you don’t need food, you don’t get up at dawn to go wait in a pantry,” she said. “It shows how desperate people are.”

In another sign of growing desperation, seniors are showing up at Ohio food banks in unprecedented numbers, Hamler-Fugitt said. They’re typically hesitant as a group to go, but Ohio food banks served 635,000 seniors in the second quarter of this year. Installs had never seen 600,000 in a single quarter before, she said.

“These are the canaries of the coal mine,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “They’re usually the last to show up and now they’re showing up in droves.”

Food banks in Ohio have taken some pretty dramatic steps to deal with the crisis. For example, many ration food, usually cutting two days off a food allowance from five to seven days.

Meanwhile, they continue to appeal to Governor Mike DeWine for $50 million in emergency funding as the state sits on record balances of $7.4 billion. In June, DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the governor’s preference was to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds — which are about $1.3 billion on top of those balances — on capital projects, as these are non-recurring revenues.

Hamler-Fugitt said food should be considered the most fundamental investment project.

“You eat every day or you die. I don’t know what else to say,” she said. “A starving child cannot learn. If he grows to adulthood, he cannot earn money. And for the hungry elderly, it’s a one-way ticket to the nursing home.