A new program of the Athens County Department of Job & Family Services is providing food bags for people to mitigate emergency food needs in the county.
Operation Full Belly, as the program has been dubbed, is a timely initiative given the strain that many low-income families have had to endure during and since the partial shutdown of the federal government.
ACDJFS Director Jean Demosky said earlier this month that the new program is part of a larger, ongoing initiative to provide food distribution at the agency five days a week, as opposed to twice weekly as the department offered prior to her hiring last year.
“Our role until recently was to have (Athens County Food Pantry) volunteers distribute food at the County Home location (on Ohio Rt. 13) on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Demosky said in an email Feb. 1. “When I came to ACDJFS in May 2018, I made it a goal to be able to distribute some type of food five days per week.”
In an interview Feb. 5, Demosky added, tearfully, that many people must make difficult choices when it comes to using their vehicles, and it may stretch their resources to visit the old County Home building near Chauncey that’s now occupied by her county agency.
“It’s heartbreaking to tell somebody on Friday ‘come back on Tuesday, we don’t have any food,’” she said.
ACDJFS became a Level 1 food buyer through the Southeastern Ohio Food Bank this past fall, Demosky stated in the email. That allowed the agency to purchase discounted food “to supplement what the Athens County Food Pantry is able to provide two days per week.”
Demosky also noted that JFS is “not taking over food distribution, just adding resources to it.”
Operation Full Belly is funded by a $5,000 grant through the Athens County Foundation, courtesy of Rocky Community Improvement Fund (RCIF) and the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation of Nelsonville (OHFN), which the department was awarded in December.
“At ACDJFS, we see increased food demand coupled with food shortages at the end of most months,” Demosky said in the email. “Operation Full Belly will provide recipients with a supplemental food bag at these times. The bag will consist of a reusable shopping bag filled with nonperishable food items for up to three complete meals for a family of four.”
The program kicked off on Feb. 4, just in time for an expected increase in need. The federal government shutdown resulted in an early release of February SNAP benefits in mid-January. Those benefits typically aren’t enough to last most families a whole month, and originally March benefits weren’t scheduled to be released until the first week of March and as late as the 10th, resulting in what Demosky and others have called a “SNAP gap.”
In another coincidentally timely project, Demosky also implemented a competition, starting in early January that she called the “Souper Bowl” contest for Athens County employees.
“County employees from ACDJFS, the (county) Courthouse and the Annex competed to collect the most soup for distribution through our pantry service,” Demosky said in her email, adding that the winning team was to receive a pizza party. “While we started this before the SNAP early distribution, it could not have come at a better time. This food will also supplement our regular programs.”
Collectively, county employees collected 2,904 cans or packages of soup and instant ramen during the month-long competition.
“We have had a great response from the generous Athens community with offers for assistance with time, money and food collection,” Demosky added in her email. “… It will not change that February’s allotment was distributed on (Jane. 15).”
Since the Full Belly program began, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has announced a mitigation plan to release half of the benefits for March tomorrow, on Feb. 22, and the other half on the usual disbursement dates in March. Still, those supplemental funds probably won’t prevent SNAP recipients and other families in need from relying on food pantries and JFS distributions, experts have said.
“It was timely,” Demosky said of the grant awarded in December, just before the shutdown went into effect. “... We happened to be prepared… We didn’t know that we were going to be under the gun to implement project Full Bellies.”
Ideally, the program will help in other emergency cases not related to the shutdown, as well.
“Anyone in need would qualify” for the Full Belly meal bags, said Susan Douglas, Child Support Enforcement Agency director, during the interview Feb. 5. “This is definitely going to help fill the gap for this month, and hopefully into the next.”
Demosky added that “everyone has paperwork to fill out (to confirm their need) but we won’t prevent anybody from getting food.”
Douglas and Demosky said the meal bags are packed with full meals in mind, either simple boxed meals or ingredients that pair well together. Each bag will come with a recipe card related to the ingredients in the bag.
The local Save-A-Lot grocery store donated a great amount of disposable bags to JFS for the Full Belly program, which came in handy, Demosky said. ACDJFS had ordered reusable grocery bags for the program but due to an expedited implementation they needed, and were glad to receive, the disposable bags, as well.
Even after all of the food purchased so far, enough to fill multiple tables at the County Home with meal bags, ACDJFS still has a significant chunk of grant money to keep the program running for a while, though Douglas and Demosky said they plan to apply for more grants, and may use donated funds, to keep it going.
“We’re going to apply for every grant we can,” Douglas said.
Demosky added that it would be great to have an endowment fund so the program can continue indefinitely.
Anyone interested in making a donation to the Full Belly program, or JFS in general, can visit the agency’s website and click the “Donate Today” button at the top.
Douglas said monetary donations go further than food donations, because of the agency’s Level 1 food buyer status.
“If they give us a thing of peanut butter, we can go out with that same amount of money and buy more peanut butter” than an average person could, Douglas said.
Ohio University Credit Union is also accepting donationsthrough the end of this month to fund the program, and has agreed to match funds up to $2,500, according to a Facebook post on the Credit Union’s page. People can donate in person at OUCU, by secure chat in online banking, or by phone at 740-597-2800, according to the post.