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Marion Food Pantry Loses Foodbank Partnership After Refusing To Enforce Masks

A volunteer at Beacon of Hope giving a box of food to a man who is homeless. Some volunteers wear masks, others do not.
Adora Namigadde
A volunteer at Beacon of Hope giving a box of food to a man who is homeless. Some volunteers wear masks, others do not.

A long line of cars snakes around the parking lot of the Beacon of Hope food pantry. On this chilly Thursday night,  volunteers are loading boxes into the vehicles of clients who would normally shuffle through the pantry picking items themselves.

This is a typical sight at food pantries across the stateduring the COVID-19 pandemic. With a local unemployment rate hovering around 5%, many Marion residents have been turning to food banks to make it throught the pandemic and resulting economic fallout.

Like other pantries, Beacon of Hope has made adjustments to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. There are only 10 volunteers allowed on-site at a time, and clients have to stay in their cars while volunteers bring them boxes of pantry staples like bread and cereal.   

Although he’s agreed to many changes, pantry co-founder Joe Harrison put his foot down for one coronavirus regulation – and as a result severed the pantry’s relationship with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

“If things don’t change, 40,000 people in this community will go from being able to get food every week to being able to only count on three days from another place,” Harrison laments.

That regulation? Harrison does not force his volunteers to wear masks.

“My stance is, is abortion legal?" Harrison says. "And why is it legal? And why is it that a liberal will stand so hard on abortion because it’s their body, their right? But I can’t stand firm and say, ‘Hey, it’s my body, my right.'"

Credit Adora Namigadde
Joe Harrison leans against a client's car as he asks them about their week.

Sacrificing Food

Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask mandate requires people to wear face coverings in public when they’re indoors at a location that is not a residence, or outside in a space where they cannot maintain six feet of social distancing. His ruling is based in recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say mask-wearing can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Beacon Of Hope made the call last summer to not require volunteers to wear masks, despite that state mandate. In addition to other violations that the Mid-Ohio Foodbank declined to specify, the organization dropped the pantry from its list of partners in January.

The regional foodbank partners with more than 600 agencies, supplying them with free produce that grocery stores would otherwise throw away. They also give pantries the opportunity to buy non-perishable food at a discount.

Harrison argues he should still be able to buy food from the foodbank.

“Under the government, we are our own entity. I don’t answer to Mid-Ohio, I buy food from them,” Harrison explains. “And we have a symbiotic relationship because of the stores. But I’m not a Mid-Ohio employee.”

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank requires volunteers to wear masks at its own on-site pantries. The organization also instructs volunteers to take the temperatures of food pantry clients in their vehicles.

Marilyn Thomasi says all partner agencies are supposed to adhere to certain standards that are tightly monitored.

“We have a very robust monitoring system, where we do require all the agencies in the network to follow certain guidelines around food safety and civil rights and those kinds of things,” Thomasi says.

A spokesman for the Mid-Ohio Foodbank says Beacon of Hope committed other violations against its policies, and that the mask issue was just one of several reasons the pantry was cut. He declined to go into detail about the other violations.

Losing a partnership with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank is no small thing for a food pantry that’s made it into the network, Harrison says.

“We probably lost anywhere from 20-30,000 pounds of fresh produce monthly – that’s between 300-400,000 pounds annually from Mid-Ohio,” Harrison says. “And the ability, before, we would buy anywhere from 6 to 12 to 15,000 pounds of food monthly as well.”

Harrison says that’s a price he’s willing to pay to stand up for his volunteers’ personal liberties.

“I felt attacked and like I had to defend people who didn’t want to or wouldn’t voice their opinion because they didn’t feel like it,” Harrison says. “In today’s day and age, let’s be honest, you voice an opinion, and if it’s not a certain-sided opinion, you get hammered.”

Credit Adora Namigadde
Harrison estimates Beacon of Hope lost around 20,000-30,000 pounds of fresh produce monthly as a result of the disagreement with Mid-Ohio Foodbank over masks.

Lingering Disagreements Over Masks

Despite the lack of a mandate, some pantry volunteers wear masks. Gladys Cochran’s been volunteering for Beacon of Hope for four years, and she wishes more people would wear them.

“I feel everybody should wear one. Not only in the streets,” Cochran says. “When you go into the stores and into here, you should still have a mask on. But people do what they wanna do. So if they don’t, they don’t.”

Cochran says there’s not much she can do to improve the issue other than wear a mask herself.

“Some people said they can’t wear it because of they asthma. Well, that’s their life,” Cochran says. “And if that’s the way they wanna live it, that’s on them.”

Pete Russell, who comes through the food pantry weekly, feels a little differently. Russell is on Social Security and caring for someone who is unable to work, so he’s grateful for the extra help from Beacon of Hope. He doesn’t care that the volunteers don’t regularly wear masks.

“No. It don’t matter to me,” Russell says.

He sees COVID-19 the way he sees the flu – despite health officials agreeing that the coronavirus is more contagious and far more dangerous.

“If you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. It’s gonna be like the flu, as far as I’m concerned,” Russell laughs. “I’ve tried to avoid it, same as I would try to avoid the flu.”

Even though Beacon of Hope lost a major food supplier, it’s still functioning with donations from other partner stores. But Harrison isn’t sure the pantry can survive much longer without Mid-Ohio.

“I truly don’t know what we’re gonna do,” Harrison says. “I know God will supply, but to what end, I don’t know.” 

Harrison is holding to his stance on mask enforcement, though

“Have we had the cops called on us? Sure we have. Cops have come here, they see we social distance, yet not everyone wears a mask,” Harrison says. “They understand our stance as well. We’ve never been cited or ticketed.”

Harrison is hoping the Mid-Ohio Foodbank will allow Beacon of Hope to become a partner again. But so far, there is no sign of that happening.

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.