CFI food table

A table full of food delivered to the Coolville Public Library by Community Food Initiatives partner Mike Kubisek. Photo provided by Mike Kubisek.

Athens County suffers from the highest rate of food insecurity in the state of Ohio and is ahead of the state’s other 87 counties in terms of poverty, according to recent data.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks is lobbying the Ohio Senate to include an increase in funding for food distribution programs in the state’s biennial budget for 2020-2021, since the version already passed by the Ohio House last week failed to do so.

According to national nonprofit Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2019 report, Ohio’s food insecurity rate of 14.5% is much higher than the national rate of 12.5% and the Midwestern average of 11.4% (based on data from 2017).

What’s more, Athens County has the highest rate of food insecurity of all counties in the state, at 19.3%. Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the state at 18.4. Nearby Meigs County is also in the top 10 with a rate of 16.5%.

To make matters worse, Athens County is “the poorest county in the state by far,” asserted Jean Demosky, director of Athens County Job & Family Services, last week. “Some people say ‘Oh, it’s all the students; it’s all the students,’ but I don’t buy that.”

According to conventional wisdom, Ohio University students who are counted as Athens County residents in the U.S. Census do skew poverty statistics in Athens County, since college students by and large don’t earn significant incomes. However, the extent of that effect on the poverty statistics is debatable, and nobody has ever made a compelling case that Athens County doesn’t have a very high rate of poverty, OU students aside.

 According to the Ohio Poverty Report released in February, Athens County had a poverty rate of 28.8% in 2017, which was the same as in 2016 and the lowest it’s been since 2011.

The national poverty rate in 2017 was 13.4%, and the state poverty rate was 13.9%. Scioto County had the second-highest poverty rate in 2017 at 21.4%, still 7.4 percentage points behind Athens and with a significantly larger population.

“You have the highest food insecurity rates in the state; you have the highest poverty rate in the state… That is not a number one that I would aspire to be in,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks (OAFB).

According to a press release issued by OAFB May 1, around one in five children in Ohio (19.6%) lives in a family that can’t always afford enough food on its own. “In several rural counties (Monroe, Meigs, Adams, Vinton, Scioto and Guernsey), that rate is 1 in 4 or higher,” the release states.

“From Appalachian Ohio to the metro areas, Ohioans face steep challenges in making their incomes stretch to cover all of their expenses,” Hamler-Fugitt is quoted saying in the release.

She continues, “Food is the one part of their budget they can cut out if they have to when the other bills come due, and they have to put gas in the car to get to work….

“A family of three with two full-time working parents earning $9 an hour each make too much money to qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program),” Hamler-Fugitt states in the release. “Yet, after paying for housing costs, transportation, medical costs and child care, they have little to nothing left to purchase food. These families are turning to our hunger-relief network, not as an emergency, but as a recurring lifeline.”

Hamler-Fugitt said last Friday that OAFB is anticipating an increase in need in the months to come.

“In the summer months, we see a marked increase in demand for emergency food assistance when kids are out of school so we are bracing for an increased demand with limited funding,” she said. “….Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of kids who rely on free and reduced meals aren’t going to have access to those meals this summer.”

Additionally, Hamler-Fugitt cited a 25% increase in the number of seniors who use hunger-relief services in the past four years. That includes seniors who are caring for grandchildren whose parents have been struggling with addiction.

“It’s people who are working and playing by the rules every day… trying to figure out do I buy life sustaining medication or do I eat?” Hamler-Fugitt said, adding that OAFB estimates that “upwards of 160,000 seniors” are taking care of grandkids due to the opioid crisis and are relying on foodbanks and related services. “There are a lot more out there who could use assistance and we see them every day... in our food pantries and in our soup kitchen lines,” she said. Many of those folks exist outside of the state programs designed to help people in need, like SNAP, Hamler-Fugitt explained.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks is seeking increased funding in the 2020-21 state biennial budget to support a “Comprehensive Approach to Hunger Relief,” according to the release. Specifically, the association is requesting $30 million per year, less than 4% of the statewide meal gap of $797 million, as estimated by Feeding America.

According to a fact sheet summarizing the OAFB request, those funds would be used for continuation and expansion of: the Ohio Food Program, which allows for the purchase and distribution of shelf-stable food, and the Agricultural Clearance Program that allows for purchase and distribution of produce; summer meals programs for children, to provide shelf-stable meals and produce to kids; the Ohio Benefit Bank, which supports free tax filing for low- and moderate-income taxpayers and leverages matching funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for SNAP outreach; and capacity building resources for charitable organizations to acquire updated refrigeration and freezer equipment.

Last year, more than 55 million pounds of food were distributed through the Ohio Food Program and Agricultural Clearance Program, which Hamler-Fugitt called “two critical hunger lifelines.”

With the need for hunger-relief programs expected to increase, Hamler-Fugitt said state funding is especially critical. “(We) can’t do more with less,” she said. In Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s budget proposal, and in the version passed by the House last Thursday, $19.5 million would be appropriated to the OAFB to fund those and related programs.

The OAFB request would increase the amount proposed in the House-approved budget by about $10.4 million. “That request represents $1.25 per person (served) per month,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “I think Ohio can afford it.”

The total budget for the state, as proposed by Gov. DeWine, is roughly $140.8 billion. Hamler-Fugitt said OAFB serves an estimated two million-plus Ohioans each year.

Those interested can contact their state senator and ask him or her to support the increased funding for OAFB in the biennial budget, Hamler-Fugitt encouraged. “It’s not over; we’ll just continue to fight on,” she said. “... Hunger’s never been a partisan issue in the state of Ohio. It’s all of us working together.”

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