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Business & Economy

Mid-Ohio Food Collective re-purposing former southeast Columbus Kroger as hunger-fighting hub

Matthew Rand

Emergency pandemic benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are ending this month.

The reduction in assistance comes at a time when high inflation is driving up the cost of all sorts of expenses, including groceries.

Amid this backdrop, Ohio food banks are bracing for an increase in food insecurity statewide.

The Mid-Ohio Food Collective plans to re-purpose a former southeast Columbus Kroger on Refugee Road near the former Eastland Mall as a hunger-fighting hub.

Matthew Rand

The 67,000-square-foot grocery store closed its doors in May of last year, but even before that, the area was in great need of help, said Mid-Ohio Food Collective President and CEO Matt Habash.

"One of the things we've learned, unfortunately, is that the (432)32 zip code, that area has the highest eviction rate in Franklin County and it's extremely high with food insecurity right. So there's a really high need area,” Habash said.

Plans for the space are still taking shape, but Habash explained Mid-Ohio envisions a production kitchen so they can serve hot meals, health services and more. "We're designing this in a way that meets the needs of our customers in that community, and really helps address the challenges and needs that they have. So we really want to listen to them, so as long as that takes, we will do it," Habash said.

Kroger corporate affairs manager and MOFC board member Amy McCormick said the Refugee Road location was struggling to turn a profit, but closing the store was a hard decision.

"From a Kroger perspective, we have a very committed social impact plan of zero hunger, zero waste and we knew right away, we knew the need in the 43232 zip code. And so we wanted to be able to find a buyer for the site, and it was going to be able to serve the needs of the community,” McCormick said.

Kroger sold the space to Mid-Ohio earlier this month far below market rate.

McCormick said the arrangement was mutually beneficial. "Being able to partner with someone like Mid-Ohio food collective and filling that void and knowing then that we're also providing additional, you know, those wraparound services for the community. Again, it ends up being a win win for the community," McCormick said.

Instead of a traditional food bank, where families might only be able to pick up pre-selected boxes of food, the plan is to create an experience that feels like shopping at a regular grocery store.

“They just come through and shop, and we have people help them shop, and we'll load the groceries into their car when they're finished. And it's it makes it personal for them that they can pick and they can feel cared for and get what they want,” said Chris Andrews, discipleship and missions pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church on Winchester Pike. The church has been partnering with Mid-Ohio for a little over a year.

John Kershner and Chris Andrews at Fellowship Baptist Church
Matthew Rand
John Kershner (left) is missions lead and Chris Andrews (right) is discipleship and missions pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church, located at 4701 Winchester Pike. The church's food pantry has been partnering with Mid-Ohio Food Collective for a little over a year.

Andrews said the take-what-you-need approach helps eliminate the stigma that can come with asking for a hand up. “We have young families with small kids and we have middle age folks and we have grandparents come through, but everybody needs help sometimes and we're here for that,” Andrews said.

The church usually serves about 60 families a month, but that number could be going up, according to Andrews.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said a record number of Ohioans sought food assistance in December. “Some 3.1 million Ohioans who lack the resources to be standing in grocery store checkout lines had to turn to a local food bank or food pantry in order to get enough food to feed themselves and their families,” said Hamler-Fugitt.

With the final pandemic SNAP allotments going out last month, Hamler-Fugitt said Ohio SNAP participants will lose, on average, $95 per person in benefits.

Coupled with inflated prices for housing, utilities and other monthly expenses, food assistance programs across the state are bracing for a big increase in hunger.

“I think we're all feeling it, when we go to the grocery store that we're paying a little bit more for a little bit less than the cart. And think about our low-income friends and neighbors, you know, hunger is just six doors down and it looks a whole lot like you and me,” said Hamler-Fugitt.

Hamler-Fugitt said older Ohioans will be hit the hardest. Her organization estimates some 70,000 seniors will see their SNAP benefits roll back to just $23 a month. She said the state could intervene with supplemental assistance of its own, raising the total benefit to $50 a month. “That would only cost the state about $42 million over the next two years, a screaming bargain,” she said.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.