Food banks strained during COVID-19 crisis

During the most robust economy in history, about 1.6 million Ohioans relied on Ohio food banks to feed their families.

Then COVID-19 hit. The state in essence shut down in mid-March. The folks who already relied on food banks to stretch what their paychecks couldn’t cover were suddenly out of a job, as were thousands upon thousands of others.

“We’re feeding more people than we’ve ever fed in the history of Ohio,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks.

OAFB has seen an influx of almost $5 million from the state to help bridge the COVID-19 crisis. Almost $1 million of that is going toward helping get dairy into the refrigerators of those in need and helping dairy farmers have a place for their product to go. 

“We’ve been clearing more milk now,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “Helping get raw milk made into cheese or cottage cheese, yogurt. The rest has gone to shelf stable items, such as peanut butter, tuna, a very limited supply of canned fruits and vegetables, dry pasta, ravioli, rice.” 

OAFB runs the Ohio Agricultural Clearance Program, helping to move products from farms to those who need it, including everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to beef and pork.

That is all exponentially harder now. 

Food pantries across Ohio are largely faith-based, volunteer organizations that rely on a mostly older population to help feed local communities. When the stay at home orders were put into place, those faith-based programs shut down, Hamler-Fugitt said. 

“We lost our volunteers,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “70% of our 3,600 faith-based organizations across the state are operating with senior volunteers, who are one of the most vulnerable populations.”

Other corporate volunteers who come from large companies also were sent home to shelter in place and not able to volunteer.

Today, 500 National Guard troops are stationed at Second Harvest and Feeding America regional food banks all over the state where “thousands” of people are coming for food every day, she said. Their deployment lasts in 30-day increments, and Hamler-Fugitt received notice May 1 that the current deployment might be the last as the state looks to slowly reopen the economy.

“Losing the National Guard would be catastrophic,” she said, noting that they do everything from drive trucks, stock produce and greet customers, along with everything in between.

But it’s not just increased demand and lack of a volunteer force that keeps Hamler-Fugitt up at night during this unprecedented time. It is also the food supply chain – both the logistics and the purchasing.

“There are plenty of eggs,” she said, as an example, “but not enough cartons to put them in. For a while we didn’t have enough trucks (to haul food to regional food banks).”

Another example of disruption is a microcosm of the overall crisis. When, on occasion, the Ag Clearance Program would be offered a pig to process through the program, Hamler-Fugitt said they could count on the meat processing school at Pickaway County Correctional Institution to process the hog. Even that option has been taken away because of the COVID-19 outbreak at that facility.

Finally, Hamler-Fugitt said the association’s buying power is dwindling. With every monetary donation that is coming in, she is turning around and buying food that costs sometimes much more than it did before the pandemic, as demand outstrips supply.

“This is a lesson for us in Ohio,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “We don’t have the full supply chain in Ohio and have to rely on outside sources. I understand the economy of scale, but it doesn’t matter. Our fate is hanging in the balance. It is a hard job to grow, raise and process our food. Maybe this will be a wake-up call to Americans.”