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Food bank official urges people to lean on Congress for more assistance

Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

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The All People’s Fresh Market in Columbus, Ohio. (Brooke LaValley/ Ohio Capital Journal)

The fragile gains the poorest Ohioans made over the decade since the Great Recession have been wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, a leading food bank official said Thursday. She added that if Congress doesn’t act soon to help that population, the situation will become much worse.

Thursday was national Hunger Action Day and Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said the facilities continue to see record demand.

“We’re just hearing from more people that what they thought was going to be a temporary layoff is now a permanent layoff,” she said, adding that for many Ohioans, that’s driving insecurities about food, housing and the ability to meet other basic needs.

There’s “a lot of desperation. A lot of tears. They’re grateful for what they’re getting, but there’s a lot of fear,” she said.

After the pandemic hit in the spring, Ohio food banks started seeing record levels of demand, which Hamler-Fugitt said later stabilized at those levels. But at the end of July, a federal $600-a-week unemployment supplement ran out.

Now hunger appears to be again rising rapidly.

Data collected from Aug. 19-31 indicate that nearly 826,000 Ohioans sometimes or often did not had enough to eat over the past seven days, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey released Wednesday. The estimate for data collected between July 16 and 21 — before the federal supplement expired — was 673,000. That’s a 23% increase in food insecurity in a month.

“We better do something fast to get cash into people’s hands,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “People need to be picking up the phone and raising holy hell with their members of Congress.”

The prospects for congressional action appeared to dim on Thursday.

The Democratically led House in May passed a $3 trillion coronavirus-relief bill that would continue the $600 weekly unemployment supplement. as expiration loomed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in late July introduced a $1 trillion bill that would have cut the unemployment supplement to $200 a week, but couldn’t pass it.

Congressional Democrats last month offered to cut the size of their bill to $2.2 trillion. In response, McConnell introduced a $500 billion “skinny” relief bill that would have provided $300 a week in enhanced unemployment.

It failed on Thursday, leaving observers saying that both sides appeared to be digging in and that a compromise might not be possible until after the Nov. 3 election.

Hamler-Fugitt said that Ohio’s food banks face two pressures in the coming months.

One has to do with food supplies as federal purchases of commodities for donation to food banks are set to expire.

“Most food banks are sitting on a four to six-week supply of food, which is good. But we are preparing now for commodities to fall off pretty substantially before the end of the year,” she said. “The feds just aren’t going to be purchasing much.”

Another strain has to do with a lack of volunteers. Many older volunteers have been reluctant to work at food banks out of health concerns, Hamler-Fugitt said, and corporate volunteerism has dropped off due to covid-related disruptions.

Gov. Mike DeWine has assigned the National Guard to fill the gap, but it can’t fill that role indefinitely. In marking Hunger Action Day, DeWine and his wife, Fran, on Thursday encouraged people who can to volunteer at a food bank.

“We all know about the things this coronavirus has caused and food insecurity is something we have to deal with,” Mike DeWine said. “There are people out there who really need food.”

To volunteer, contact your local food bank or email Hamler-Fugitt at Lisa@ohiofoodbanks.org.

She said swift action at all levels is urgently needed to avert catastrophe.

“What we’re afraid of is has this become the new normal — that one in four of our neighbors doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from?” Hamler-Fugitt said.

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