LIMA — When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, images of cars lining around the block were commonplace as people waited for the National Guard to hand food out from places like the West Ohio Food Bank.
On Friday, the food bank invited state government officials back to show the National Guard is still there, and the need is just as real today as it was a year ago. The West Ohio Food Bank distributed 10.4 million pounds of food in its last fiscal year, and it’s already hit 9 million pounds with three months left in its fiscal year.
“I don’t think that there is anything more basic than food, whether it’s for the dislocated worker who was last year’s donor and is now this year’s food bank client,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “It’s for the senior citizens, who worked hard all their life and now find themselves in a situation of making trade-offs between food and medicine. Then there’s the kids, who we know hunger affects a kid’s ability to learn and thrive. This is a good investment that pays dividends for years to come.”
Food banks in Ohio have asked for additional temporary appropriations for the state for the remainder of the current budget, as well as increases for the next budget, as food insecurity hits people in the economic wake of the virus.
House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, listened to the concerns and marveled at the scale of the help provided at the West Ohio Food Bank. He acknowledged the state can be part of the solution.
“For a long time, the legislature has supported these efforts. Funding the state provides is multiplied many times by donations and less-than-cost food provided by companies. That’s by private contributions. We’re part of it. The state can’t do it all, shouldn’t do it all, but it can really help leverage other resources.”
Hamler-Fugitt noted about 25 percent of funding for food banks comes through state programs, Ohio Food Program and Agriculture Clearance Program.
Everyone in attendance Friday saluted the efforts of the Ohio National Guard — including personnel from the Air National Guard and Army National Guard — in helping distribute the food. The Guard’s effort started with 23 people a year ago.
It’s been an opportunity to serve closer to home than ever expected for Specialist Masie Utrup, a 2019 Ottawa-Glandorf graduate.
“Honestly, it brought a surprise to me,” Utrup said. “My original job in the Guard is as military police. I would never think that I was going to be standing in the line, handing out food. But that’s what I signed up for. We signed up to serve federal and state, even local communities, in needs like this in natural disasters and pandemic.”
It surprised Utrup how great the need was, especially when she helped distribute in Ottawa and saw so many familiar faces.
“I never realized how much people were in dire need of simple things,” she said. “It’s awesome that as my job we can do this.”
State Rep. Jon Cross, whose district includes Hancock, Hardin and part of Logan counties, had a similar experience when he volunteered at a food distribution early in the pandemic.
“It was at a church, a few outside of Kenton, and the line went all the way down to the courthouse and wrapped around the courthouse. I don’t think we were ready for the amount of need we saw,” he said.
It’s important for elected officials to remember that and continue to help food banks across the state, Hamler-Fugitt said. It’s been harder and harder for food banks, as volunteers and corporate-backed volunteers stayed away. In the meantime, the donations of extra food from grocery stores and money to food banks declined at the same time demand went up and costs went up. She said a semi-tractor load of peanut butter went up from less than $30,000 up to $48,000 in the past year. That brings more people to food banks.
“Unfortunately the low-wage job market — those who have been literally struggling paycheck to paycheck even before the pandemic hit — have been the hardest hit,” she said. “… It’s going to take us a while for our economy to recover.”