A gallon of gas or a dozen eggs costs less than it did a few months ago, but it remains difficult for many Ohioans to make ends meet. While the newly approved state budget provides some funding for food assistance, the battle against hunger continues.
State lawmakers in the Ohio House and Senate hashed out their differences and passed the new two-year budget just before a constitutionally mandated deadline June 30.
When it comes to food assistance, neither chamber was ready to pony up the $50 million a year the state’s food banks requested. But of the two, the House’s $39.55 million a year was more generous. The Senate’s initial offer matched the governor’s proposal of $24.55 million a year, but framed the appropriation as “up to” instead of “not less than.”
In the end, lawmakers decided to split the difference, spending about $32 million a year on to Ohio’s food banks.
Still, service providers have their work cut out for them. Federal pandemic supports have receded leaving not so much a gap, as a yawning chasm in assistance. Residents and organizations alike continue to face heightened inflation, which means the need keeps growing and capacity keeps shrinking.
The Garden for All
There was a light, but steady drizzle falling outside All Saints Episcopal Church in New Albany, but Catherine Duffy stayed outside tending the garden in June. A handful of volunteers are making their way up and down the rows cutting the day’s harvest of lettuce.
“It’s five different varieties,” she explained, “Different kinds of head lettuce, and a spring mix.”
They’ve got 4,000 heads of the stuff, she said, “and if you cut them right, they’ll actually grow back.”
Lettuce is one of the biggest requests they get from local food pantries, but as we walked down the rows, she pointed out carrots, cucumbers, beans, beets, tomatoes — even three rows of eggplant. “Surprisingly, they like it,” Duffy said.
Duffy and her husband Shawn started the garden in 2020, and in that time it’s grown dramatically. They’ve now got three garden plots around the property, but they’ve also boosted output as well. This year they’ve produced about double what they did by this time in 2022. What’s more, their newest, and biggest, plot has barely made an impact. Ninety percent of that growth, Duffy explained, came from the existing garden beds. Pretty soon, they’re adding a greenhouse.
“Hunger doesn’t stop in the wintertime,” she said.
The garden’s produce serves several food pantries in New Albany, Gahanna, and Columbus. But for all its increases in production, the garden can’t begin to keep up with demand.
“We try to gauge how much do they need,” she said. “But honestly, every time this year we’ve asked did we give me too much they’ve all said no, please, can you bring more?”
Standing in the church kitchen as volunteers cleaned and packed lettuce, Duffy described a pantry in Gahanna asking for 50 more bags that week. “I don’t know that we have it,” she said, looking around and calculating in her head, “but we’ll take them whatever we have.”
It’s a regular reminder of the sheer size and scope of the challenge. Duffy has no illusions about the garden’s capacity. “It is the tiniest little drop in the bucket,” she acknowledged, but that drop is still something. And in addition to feeding people, she believes their mission is to shine a light on systemic failures — raising the question ‘why does hunger exist in the first place?’
“As long as the people who write the budget in our state don’t want to close that gap, we are willing to stand in it as best we can,” she said.
Broad Street Presbyterian Food Pantry
A week later, half a dozen volunteers were swarming around pallets of food delivered to Broad Street Presbyterian. Kathy Kelly-Long, the food pantry’s manager, was directing traffic. Volunteers rushed back and forth weighed down with cases of canned beans and big boxes of mac and cheese. At the bottom of the pallets were massive brown bags of rice.
“We get between 5,000-10,000 pounds of food at a time,” she explained. “All the rice you see? That was free right now, so we backordered a bunch so it’ll last us for a while. So that when it comes in inventory and it cost me $2 a bag, I don’t have to spend that money because I’ve got it here.”
This shipment came in from the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. Kelly-Long explained that pantries like hers can purchase shelf-stable canned or boxed goods at heavily reduced prices. “Plus, they’ll bring them on a truck and I don’t have to put 50 pound bags of rice in the back of my Prius,” she added.
Mid-Ohio also distributes produce, she explained, through partnerships with local farms and grocery stores. But unlike a bag of rice, that produce has a short shelf life.
“And that’s where like the community gardens really come into play,” Kelly-Long said. Fresh produce is really important, but when people are having trouble making ends meet, produce is one of the first cuts. If five bucks gets you a bag of oranges or a weeks’ worth of macaroni and cheese dinners, there’s not much of a choice. Produce from The Garden for All helps supplement the pantry’s offerings to ensure more visitors have access to fresh foods.
Still, the differences in scale are hard to miss. When Duffy showed up, she was pulling crates from a every spare inch of a Jeep Cherokee; the Mid-Ohio delivery showed up in a box truck.
It’s really important, Kelly-Long said, but it’s still just “the icing on the cake.” How many Gardens for All would she need to ensure every visitor had ready access to fresh vegetables? Back of the napkin, Kelly-Long estimated eight to 10.
That’s why the state budget makes her nervous. Food banks are her most important source of food, and appropriating just half of their request is disconcerting. “Inflation impacts everybody,” she said — food banks included. And she worries the Senate plan to fund numerous other programs for only one year instead of two undercuts people who are struggling. Every month, she said, 20% or more of their visitors are new families.
“Families who’ve never visited our pantry before because they were getting by,” she described. “Maybe they weren’t doing great, but they weren’t at the point where they couldn’t buy food. And now they are.”
“That’s, to me, the biggest concern,” she said. “Because as those numbers increase, we don’t have any way to increase what we have available.”
Ohio food banks
Broad Street Presbyterian — and about 3,600 charities like it — rely on Ohio’s network of food banks to fill their shelves. If pantries like Broad Street are stores, food banks are the regional warehouses.
“We move between 250 million to 300 million pounds of food a year,” Ohio Association of Food Banks executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt said. “We scale in semi-tractor trailers.”
She praised programs like community gardens for offering additional supply. And just as important, she said, they help educate and build community engagement. But she’s blunt about the scope of the problem.
“They’re not going to end hunger,” she said. “Food Banks aren’t going to end hunger. For every meal that I provide through my statewide network, SNAP provides twelve.”
The interaction of SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps, and the state budget weighs heavily on Hamler-Fugitt. During the pandemic, the federal government increased SNAP allotments, but those additional funds ran out in February.
“That’s a loss of $126 million a month,” she said. “A month! The annualized loss of that 100% federally funded food assistance benefit is $1.44 billion that low-income Ohioans will not have.”
That monthly shortfall easily outstrips the entire two-year $50 million funding request food banks sent to state lawmakers, and in the end they only got $32 million. Meanwhile, as those SNAP benefits recede, food banks are facing the same inflation as everyone else. “In some areas, protein costs are up by more than 50%,” Hamler-Fugitt said.
She also finds lawmakers’ reticence to fund food banks puzzling. While the federal government fully funds SNAP, the other major welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, requires the state to chip in to bring in funding.
That state portion, known as the “maintenance of effort,” or MOE, runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and food banks actually help defer the cost. That’s because each year the state can claim a portion of the private donations food banks receive as part of its MOE — kind of like itemizing deductions at tax time.
Under the most recent agreement, Hamler-Fugitt said, the state has been able to claim $298 million toward its MOE.
“We are a net contributor to the state budget,” she argued.
This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.