COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: Addressing hunger, stigma in the Miami Valley

On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the Dayton Daily News hosted a Community Conversation with a panel of those on the front lines of the fight against food insecurity in our region. The discussion was moderated by Community Impact Editor Nick Hrkman. Panelists included:

  • Tyra Jackson, Executive Director of Second Harvest Food Bank CCL
  • Michael Knote, Executive Director of the Have A Gay Day food pantry
  • Terry Perdue, Executive Director of Shared Harvest Food Bank
  • Lynda Suda, Manager of the 2nd Street Market
  • Lauren Tappel, Development and Marketing Manager for The Foodbank Dayton
  • Mark Willis, Director of the Hall Hunger Initiative

You can watch a recording of the Community Conversation on the Dayton Daily News Facebook Page and on our website.

The transcript below has been edited for brevity and clarity:

What are the unmet needs in your community?

Jackson: Since the pandemic, things have changed a lot for all of us. How we’ve had to reach out to people, our service delivery. A lot of our families who were new coming to the food banks during the pandemic still have that expectation of receiving not necessarily just supplementary items, but a meal. And they’re looking for a meal for seven days. It’s harder for our food banks and for our food pantries to meet the needs and expectations of the neighbors who are coming to us because there’s less food for us to distribute. What we’re seeing now is that the volume of people coming to us is 30% higher than what we had prior to the pandemic.

Tappel: For the Dayton area, we also had the Memorial Day tornadoes that hit our community in 2019. Our team just had to respond to an emergency situation where our neighbors were displaced, needed serious home repairs, businesses had to shut down. So need in the Dayton area has been elevated for about three years now. Compared to national trends, our insecurity rates have been higher than the national average for many, many years.

How has the economy and inflation affected your operations?

Jackson: People who were going to donate don’t necessarily have the resources anymore. We’re seeing a decrease in donations because there was that big surge of people wanting to help during the pandemic, and then we’re also seeing a decrease in the amount of food that we’re receiving as well. It we used to be we were able to get eggs for 40 cents a dozen and it’s now $1.50 or so. So our dollar can’t stretch it as far.

Suda: One thing that’s noteworthy about local markets like the 2nd Street Market is our prices haven’t changed as dramatically as larger supermarkets. Some things have, but when you’re dealing with a local farmer, they don’t have all those different steps and all those go-betweens to get to where they’re shipping. So it’s just the start farmer and the consumer. That dollar goes further. Where the 2nd Street Market used to be a little more expensive than some grocers, now we’re pretty neck and neck, and some things even cheaper. We also have incentive programs to come and get free produce. The Produce Perks program we’ve been offering provides a $25 match. One other thing that local markets provide is that sense of community. So when someone comes to the market, they are not only can you get fresh food and provide for their families, but they can feel welcome. And that’s possible most important thing right now, having community and feeling like you’re okay to be there.

Perdue: About 48% of the food that we supply to our partner food pantries is from government commodities. And that is true I think for many food banks, but this past year due to material and labor shortages, and the USDA’s inability to be competitive with retailers who purchase food from farmers, they have not been able to supply the amounts of food that we would normally anticipate. We’re running about 600,000 pounds of inventory compared to 1.2 million pounds the same time last year.

Willis: Food is the one thing that people can cut back on. If you can’t pay half your rent, you’ll be evicted. If you pay half your gas bill, you get your utilities cut off. If you don’t buy enough gas, you can’t get to work. But you can cut back on food, and that’s when people end up at our food pantries. They go without and they buy the cheaper, less healthy food.

Who in your community is most affected by food insecurity?

Tappel: I think that the our seniors are more likely to be food insecure. Food insecurity is deeply complex and intersectional in the United States. We have veterans who are food insecure, single-parent households. Dayton has a lot of immigrant and refugee populations that needs support as they acclimate to life here. There is a significant racial disparity. There have been a lot of systemic and structural reasons as to why Black Daytonians have been barred from accumulating wealth, which of course makes them more likely to be food insecure. And I would be remiss to not include that the LGBTQ community is also more likely to be food insecure. Any intersections of those identities compound the issue.

Willis: Structural racism is really significant. We know that there’s a huge difference between hunger in Black and white communities in Ohio and throughout the nation. Low income, low pay is a big problem. Trying to balance buying your food, getting your health insurance covered, getting your car, your rent, your home - all of these things. We stack social services like a sandwich, but people live in a messy stew. That’s why programs like the Gem City Market are really the best answer because they not only brought healthy food to that community, but they brought good paying jobs.

Suda: One of the barriers that we don’t think about is our own biases around those who needs help. There’s an assumption that they’ve done something wrong to be in this position that they need to go and get food at a food bank. We have to create a community that is accepting and understanding. Dawn, who runs the our SNAP exchange center for Homefull at the Market, is a huge success story. She’s went from being homeless with her three children to her oldest daughter now going to Harvard. She owns her own her own home now. We need to share these stories to help others overcome their biases around those seeking assistance.

Perdue: Another population that I am concerned is our neighbors in the rural communities where there are few resources, very few job opportunities, and many food deserts. They are depending on places like Dollar General and Family Dollar. And so we see more of what we consider nutrition insecurity, where they’re buying that 23 cent box of mac and cheese to sustain their families. We’re trying to make concerted efforts to have food deliveries in those communities.

Are there any barriers that people might not consider?

Knote: Think of someone with allergies. When it comes to donations, there’s always someone that may be allergic to something or may not eat something based on their faith. Are they able to get the other ingredients that it takes to make that item when it comes to cutting up vegetables that are fresh, when it comes to being able to cook something and steam something and boil something? What are they cooking with? Is it a stove pot? Is it a crock pot? Do they only have a microwave?

Willis: Technology can be a barrier. We all have our services online, but a lot of folks aren’t comfortable with the Internet. So if you know somebody struggling, you can go and do that research for them. There are a lot of other barriers that we don’t always see. We’ve been working with the immigrant community to help them get ID cards. We work with Westminster Presbyterian and Welcome Dayton because most food banks require an ID card. You need an ID card to pick your grandkid up at school. So simply offering that ID card is a way to overcome those barriers.

Tappel: Language can often be a barrier you might not think about. Not only in increasing awareness of where your resources are located and how to access them, but also engaging with that person and making sure you have either the translation services or someone on staff who can communicate.

What are the most needed items for food pantries?

Jackson: We can still stretch our dollar further than if you go to the store and you buy a jar of peanut butter. We can probably get two or three jars while you’re doing that. So financial donations are always going to assist us. Even if you don’t have money and you can’t purchase things, you can volunteer your time. We need volunteers.

Tappel: Every food item we receive has to be thoroughly inspected, sorted and inventoried. And so sometimes what can make the biggest impact is doing a peanut butter drive or granola bar drive, everyone contributing the same item. That can be really fun. It’s really beneficial to us as well. We also have not seen a lot of child-friendly items. About 22% of children in our service territory are food insecure. And so the more that we can have foods that are nutritionally dense and child friendly, the better. That’s one of our higher requested items.

Knote: Something to keep in mind for anyone donating to a pantry is looking at the components of making a meal. If you’re donating pasta, maybe donate some butter or sauce, maybe something that the pantry can put a meal together with.

Willis: On a bigger scale, doing things like shopping at Gem City Market and 2nd Street Market, going to our local restaurants like West Social Tap & Table, will do things to help shorten the line. If we’ve got more folks doing local shopping, using our CSAs with our farmers, then we’re really supporting our community food systems and addressing some root causes of food insecurity.

What has your organization done to adapt to conditions this year?

Perdue: We spent literally decades transforming our food pantries to mirror the grocery store experience. But because of the pandemic, we suspended that model and, in place of it, encouraged drive thru food distributions. But we lost that human element where we can engage in meaningful conversation with our neighbors who are coming to us and need to understand the driving factor that’s causing them to come to our pantry. I really miss that and I’m hoping in 2023 to return to a choice pantry model where we can engage in more meaningful conversations with our neighbors and provide more help.

Tappel: As we’ve expanded our team, we’ve been very intentional about trying to offer opportunities for people coming out of prison and reentering society. That community faces very unique challenges to acquiring quality employment and they’re also a vulnerable community for food insecurity. So within the next five years, we are going to be investing in the reentry space. We’re going to be doing a bit more advocacy. A lot of the people we see are employed but they don’t make enough to cover their expenses and so trying to advocate for policies and and work with our elected officials as they build policy and create a community where everyone can thrive.

Knote: We take an extra minute for the individuals that are coming in and ask what they need and then potentially refer to other agencies at that time. We may not always be able to fill in all of the gaps, but maybe we know someone that could help. We can make someone feel more welcome and appreciated and understand their situation more. The humanity part of this isn’t just the food, but it’s helping you in the nourishment of your day-to-day life.

Tappel: I have had individuals call me who have never been to a food pantry before and they’re nervous about what that experience will be like. They defend themselves: “Oh, well I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve done X, Y and Z.” It really doesn’t need to be that way. Many of the people who seek assistance work or cannot work because of disability or chronic illness. The more that we de-stigmatize food assistance and create a welcoming atmosphere, the better.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey