LIMA — The image for hunger is no longer that of a starving child from a third-world country being broadcast onto your television. It is now your neighbors, your family members and maybe even yourself.
With the coronavirus pandemic putting individuals and families out of work and putting children back into homes for all meals, the need for a healthy, guaranteed meal is now a concern in the Lima region.
Linda Hamilton, CEO of the West Ohio Food Bank, said that since the impact of the coronavirus hit its 11-county area, she has seen about 75% of the participants are new.
“What I think has been phenomenal is that we do this work daily — this is part of what we do,” Hamilton said as to how the food bank has been able to respond.
An increase in need
Jason and Brandy Shannon, of Lima, are among the many families taking advantage of the food bank’s meal distributions along with those from Lima City Schools for their four children, ages 5, 6, 9 and 12.
Brandy Shannon recently had foot surgery, so she had been off from work before the coronavirus hit local businesses. Her company, Silgan Plastics Corporation in Ottawa, is still operating as an essential business, so she was one of the many individuals who had fallen through the unemployment crack.
“I couldn’t get my short-term (disability) because my doctor had to cancel my appointment — he had to be quarantined himself because he had just gotten back from Australia,” she explained. “With short-term, you have to go to the doctor, so they couldn’t extend it, and I can’t get unemployment because I’m still technically employed, so the stimulus really did help in my situation just for the simple fact that I was stuck in the middle.”
In addition to a change in income, the Shannon family turned to the help of food banks because of the shortage and availability of resources at local grocery stores. With many stores enforcing a one-per-household limit on things such as toilet paper, milk and bread, it left their family of six wondering how that would get them by.
“These things do help, even for working families. It’s not just families that don’t work that they’re feeding,” Brandy Shannon said. “I wasn’t going to use the free lunches from the schools, but going to the store, you’re used to picking out whatever you want, and there’s plenty of it. Also, it’s just the simple fact of we don’t know if (what we need) is going to be at the store or not.”
Our Daily Bread, a Lima soup kitchen, has also seen a new demand for its services. It had to close the dining room but still can offer to-go meals.
“We’ve been seeing new people almost every day, and those numbers are staying pretty steady,” said director Randy Kimpel. “Our numbers usually drop off around the first of the month, but this month it’s been steady at about 75 to 100 every day.”
How to fill the need
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued several executive orders to ensure that the growing need for food is being met, beginning with when schools were closed in March. Knowing families may struggle to immediately fill the void of breakfast and lunches provided by the school, DeWine worked with the USDA to ensure districts could provide breakfast and lunch programs for all children under 18 years of age while schools remained closed.
In a Facebook post, Lima City Schools shared that 11,830 meals have been served since schools closed. Food service director Carrie Woodruff said that number is actually significantly higher, since over the last weeks each meal distribution has included five breakfasts and lunches each.
“We were already getting set up for the summer lunch program starting June 1, so what we did was just start that sooner to be able to feed students in a non-congregate setting,” Woodruff explained. “Serving about 2,900 for lunch is a normal day, and one day we did 2,018 before Easter. I’m happy to see those numbers at 2,000 because that means we are hitting most of our population — we are hitting most of the eligible, needy students.”
Woodruff said the biggest change they’ve had to make is adjusting the type of meal distributed. A normal summer distribution meal would include something more freshly made or ready to make. Now, they are working with local vendors such as Rightway Food Services and Gordon Food Service Store to distribute more shelf-stable components as distributions have moved to weekly.
“One of the issues that we’ve had is with the food itself. When we do food during a school day, we’re doing it in bulk — pizza that comes in a case or calzones that come in a case with no ingredients, no wrapping. Now that we’re sending it out, we have to pay more for that wrapping and have to get different products,” Woodruff said. “That’s been a huge booster across the nation because manufacturing was not ready for that.”
In addition to helping schools, DeWine issued an executive order providing nearly $5 million in emergency funding from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant to support Ohio’s 12 Feeding America food banks, which includes West Ohio Food Bank.
Along with funds, the food bank has benefitted tremendously from the help of National Guard members. Hamilton said about half of their partner distribution sites had to close, partly because of a lack of senior volunteers being available. Thirty-six National Guard members are now helping West Ohio Food Bank daily, along with larger equipment to help with a larger scale distribution.
Similar to Lima City Schools, the food bank had an existing system that allowed for a smooth transition when the demand for large distributions increased. In March, Hamilton said they did seven “large” distributions. In the week of April 6 through 12, her group did 16 and also delivered 694 meals to seniors for the first time. They delivered 25% more food in that week than in an average week in March.
“We have done these drive-thru methods for a long time, at least four years, so that’s been extremely helpful that we already had a model,” she said. “When we go into a new or smaller community, we’ve been able to go in and help educate and teach our pantries a better model to be able to quickly get food into vehicles, and a safer model to be able to do that.
“The Western Ohio Food Bank is getting just as much food out and distributing just as much as any of the larger places like Toledo — not to the level of the three C’s (Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati) of course — but some of the other larger food banks,” she added. “We are really meeting what the need is.”
Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.