In Joe Burrow’s home county, roughly 30 percent of all children in 2017 lived in households that were below the poverty level. More than one in four children are still considered “food insecure,” meaning there's little certainty about when their next meal will come.
In Burrow’s hometown of The Plains (located just outside Athens), the elementary school – The Plains Elementary School – had the highest rate of students participating in the free and reduced lunch program (almost 75 percent) of any school in the county in 2017.
Burrow – who won this year’s Heisman award for his stellar college football play at Louisiana State University – seems to know these statistics all too well. He spent part of his acceptance speech Saturday night during the award ceremony talking about that very issue.
“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very, very impoverished area,” Burrows said. “The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot, and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school; you guys can be up here, too."
Since that speech Saturday, many thousands of dollars have been collected for the Athens County Food Pantry after multiple online fundraisers were started on Facebook, flowing from Louisiana, Ohio and beyond.
The most prolific of those fundraisers had raised roughly $338,000 as of Tuesday at 8:40 a.m.., despite only being created Sunday morning with a modest goal of $1,000 (it was started by Will Drabold, an Athens High School graduate and Ohio University alum). Take the $388,000 number with a grain of salt, since by the time many of you read this, the amount likely will be much, much higher.
According to the Athens County Food Pantry’s Facebook page, in a typical month, the pantry serves over 400 households and 1,000 people, and provides food for around 9,000 meals a month (at 50 cents a meal because it can buy reduced-price food from the Southeast Ohio Food Bank). Athens County Food Pantry Board President Karin Bright said in an interview Monday afternoon that she could not thank Burrow and those who donated on Facebook enough.
Coming from an all-volunteer organization that rents its work space on Richland Avenue in Athens, Bright said that the board is considering its options with what exactly to do with the money.
However: "We don't want to ever go away from our core mission, which is providing that emergency and supplemental food," she said.
The food boxes and bags that the pantry provides are distributed each month at Athens County Job and Family Services on U.S. Rt. 33, near Chauncey, and typically is enough to provide three days of meals per month for the family receiving the box/bag.
Bright added that her organization can always use volunteer help (people can sign up by going to the food pantry's website).
Jack Frech, former Athens County Job and Family Services director and a longtime anti-poverty advocate, said that food pantries like the Athens County Food Pantry provide critical help for communities in southeast Ohio. He argued that without these largely volunteer-run operations, people would starve.
“I think this all speaks to the fact that we’ve allowed this problem to get out of hand by not maintaining an effective food stamps (SNAP) program,” Frech said. “Our whole safety net programs for cash assistance and food stamps were supposed to be keeping people from being hungry and homeless. We’ve kind of eliminated those.”
Frech said programs like these endure “constant cuts” from the state and federal governments, noting a recent Trump administration rules change that would cut an estimated 4 million plus people from that program. One of those rule changes implementing tighter work requirements for SNAP was actually adopted by the USDA recently, which could deny food stamps to almost 700,000 adults who fall under the classification of "able-bodied without dependents."
The NEWS previously has reported that roughly 14 percent of Athens County residents received SNAP benefits as of January 2018 (about 9,190 people).
While the huge influx of donations for the Athens County Food Pantry will undoubtedly help feed people in Athens County, the entire southeastern Ohio region suffers from much the same issues. There are several other organizations that people should consider giving to in light of Burrow's heartfelt message.
• The SE Ohio Food Bank serves more than 5 million people per year in Athens, Hocking, Gallia, Perry, Meigs, Morgan, Vinton, Jackson, and Washington counties (one in four children in that region suffer from food insecurity).
• Community Food Initiatives in Athens distributes thousands of pounds of fresh produce to needy families in the region every year, in addition to hosting meal workshops and other programs.
• The Nelsonville Food Cupboard is another Athens County food pantry that continues to see ever-increasing needs for its services, year after year. The Nelsonville Community Dinner – which provides a free meal every Thursday in Nelsonville – is also raising funds currently.
• The Athens Food Rescue program diverts food that otherwise would be gotten rid of and donates it to local food pantries.
• Live Healthy Appalachia is a non-profit based in Athens that provides health, wellness and nutrition programming for children and adults in southeast Ohio.
• The Children’s Hunger Alliance, based in Columbus, provides millions of nutritious meals to at-risk kids throughout Ohio each year.
According to Facebook’s website, it typically takes about six days for funds to be disbursed to accounts after a donation is given.
Outside of donating, some might consider volunteering to help out with the various southeast Ohio food pantries.
Bright, with the Athens County Food Pantry, asked people to consider simply "supporting a food pantry somewhere," even if it's not in the region.
"That's because the need is so great," she said. "As I tell people, in a country as rich and as blessed as we are, people should not have to go hungry."