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Foodbanks Across Central Ohio See New Clientele Due To COVID-19

Ohio National Guard Specialist Parris Roberts picks up a box of food at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank food distribution, Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Ohio National Guard Specialist Parris Roberts picks up a box of food at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank food distribution, Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Cleveland.

A long, socially-distanced line winds outside the Salvation Army in Marion. “Currently we’re doing a food giveaway, and there’s at least 55 or 75 people out there,” says Kristen Price, who runs the organization. "We have just a steady flow of people who are constantly in need.”

Marion County's economy lags behind much of the state. When many industrial jobs left the area, the Marion Correctional Institution became the area’s largest employer. Then, because of COVID-19, some prison employees found themselves temporarily unemployed. 

“Different situations that are coming in," Price explains. "People who’ve been laid off, people who have had to take the two weeks off if they’ve been quarantined, with some employers not paying for those two weeks off."

Although there are more people in need, the Salvation Army is operating at a reduced capacity to try and protect employees from the virus.

“Right now we’re trying not to have any contact with people,” Price says. “But if someone is in quarantine and they absolutely have to come out, we make sure we do it safely so no one has to come in contact with anybody.”

New Faces

Huge lines outside of food pantries were one of the most stunning scenes of the economic shutdown early in the pandemic. Demand has eased somewhat, but pantries are still struggling to serve clients they previously wouldn't have seen.

It’s something social service agencies are grappling with across the state. The Ohio Association of Foodbanks has been trying to help pantries keep their shelves stocked. Its leader, Lisa Hamler-Fuggitt, says the number of people 60 and older seeking food bank services statewide have more than doubled.

“That was the population that was greatly impacted by the Great Recession,” Hamler-Fuggitt explains. “For many of them that lost a higher paying job during that period of time, they had not been able to replace those kinds of employment opportunities.”

She says they’ve been working low wage, part-time, and contingent positions since the recession. The association is requesting $45 million a year in the Ohio General Assembly budget to provide for food-purchasing needs.

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank estimates it is serving around 51,000 families who had never been to a food bank before the pandemic. Spokeswoman Marliyn Thomasi says it can be challenging for new clients to admit their newfound needs. 

“We had someone come through the other day, she was kind of sneaking around,” Thomasi remembers. “She didn’t want her husband to know, because there’s still a stigma about if you’re poor and trying to access food.” 

Social Distancing Remains Pivotal 

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank covers Central and Eastern Ohio, and has around 600 partner agencies. In addition to its on-site pantry in Grove City, it also supplies food to after-school programs and shelters.

“We have a no-touch system. All food is distributed,” Thomasi says. “We have a drive-thru model, food is distributed to the trunks of cars.”

Thomasi says they’re serving up to 1,000 vehicles per day, and says the no-touch system is why they've been able to stay open.

“About 95% of our network has stayed open during COVID. Unlike in Las Vegas, about 85% of their agencies closed,” Thomasi says. 

The Salvation Army, Mid-Ohio Foodbank and the Ohio Association of Foodbanks all agreed that right now they need more funding to keep families fed. Hamler-Fugitt says there are some things food stamps can’t buy, though. 

“The other issue that we’re dealing with is the care for personal need, personal hygiene and cleaning products,” Hamler-Fugitt says. “The three things that are needed to engender an active, healthy life that individuals don’t have money to purchase or food stamps can’t be used to purchase.” 

Compounding the increased demand is a drop in donations because of the pandemic.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.