VOICES: State, congressional response urgent to prevent household insecurity from worsening

In Montgomery County, 1 in 6 individuals was food insecure in 2020. In 2019, during a “normal” year, Ohio’s food pantry network served more than 1.6 million people in need across our state. On average, each needy Ohioan visited our network six times during the year. On top of that, the network served more than 15 million additional meals in 2019 through hot meal sites and shelters. Just in Montgomery County, The Foodbank, Inc. provided more than 13.8 million pounds of take-home groceries to more than 156,000 households last year. Those households included 28% children, 50% adults, and 22% seniors. In the past two years, the pandemic has continued to exacerbate those numbers as families continue to struggle.

Along with many anti-poverty advocates, we were hopeful that the Build Back Better Act would bring about a much-needed investment in our nation’s social safety net. The legislation would have included permanent improvements to the programs that help us make sure kids are well-fed and codified the advance, expanded monthly Child Tax Credit (CTC) payments as a lasting commitment to investing in basic dignity and security for families, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

And though we remain hopeful that Congress will recognize and support the short- and long-term value of those policies, our foodbanks and the Ohioans we serve are coping with the here and now.

Not only has the cost of basic household expenses, like food, housing, and gas significantly gone up across the board, critical lifelines for the needy have or are soon going to come to an end. For example:

  • The last monthly expanded CTC payments came in December, and 10 million American children have since fallen back into poverty.
  • Federal requirements for paid sick leave expired at the end of 2020, and tax credits incentivizing employers to offer paid sick leave expired in September, before two new variants of the virus began spreading.
  • The pause on student loan repayments is set to expire May 1.
  • The end of the federal Public Health Emergency will mean reduced nutrition assistance.

For two years now, Ohio’s foodbanks have been on the frontlines of an unpredictable and evolving crisis. We no longer have the same level of volunteer support as we did before, especially when it comes to the deterioration of local faith-based hunger relief agencies, and we’ve had to bring on more staff to make up for that significant decline. Transportation costs to move food into our warehouses and out across Ohio are much higher. And, with the lowest levels of donated products from retailers and manufacturers this century, food itself is harder to find and more costly, forcing foodbanks to purchase more food with privately raised dollars than ever before.

But we cannot keep up at this rate, especially with pandemic-related supports for families ended or soon to end. To survive, we need more support from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to put wholesome, staple foods on our shelves. We join Feeding America and our peers across the country in urging Congress to include an additional $900 million in TEFAP in the upcoming spending package. Last year, TEFAP commodities made up about a quarter of all the food distributed by our network, and even more in rural areas of the state and nation.

We also need Ohio’s leaders to recognize that our hunger relief network is so much more than somewhere people turn to in emergencies. For schools, health clinics and community colleges, we make sure students and patients can get the nutritious food they need to learn and thrive. For working parents struggling to afford childcare and rent, we provide support, promote access to federal nutrition programs and fill gaps. For many older adults and people living with disabilities on fixed incomes, we are a first-line grocery store.

Ohio foodbanks deliver groceries to vulnerable households, provide nutrition education, connect clients to health care, prepare meals for kids during out-of-school-time, supply personal care and personal hygiene items, operate workforce development programs, foster cross-sector collaboration, and so much more.

For decades, we have been a nation that has accepted high food insecurity, poverty and income inequality rates as the norm. It’s time for change. We cannot return to “normal.” Our request for state flexible American Rescue Plan Act funds will help Ohio’s foodbanks build out the resilient community infrastructure needed to withstand future crises, from natural disasters to public health emergencies to the wave of aging households that will need our support, and create a better future for Ohioans.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt is the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

Michelle Riley is the CEO of The Foodbank, Inc.

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