Dayton-area food insecurity grew worse following back-to-back crises

FISH Fairborn Food Pantry manager Bill Doorley takes inventory of food donations. AIMEE HANCOCK / STAFF
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FISH Fairborn Food Pantry manager Bill Doorley takes inventory of food donations. AIMEE HANCOCK / STAFF

Less than a year after the May 2019 tornadoes, COVID-19 heightened an already-growing need

Back-to-back crises of devastating tornadoes in 2019 followed by a pandemic and recession last year has led to an increase in the local food insecurity rates.

In 2019, the rate of food insecurity was 14.3% in Montgomery County, 12% in Greene County and 8.5% in Warren County. Throughout 2021, these numbers have been projected to increase to a rate of 15.5% in Montgomery, 12.7% in Greene and 9.3% in Warren, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

In some ways, Dayton’s food insecurity rates seem to be unique compared to national trends, according to Lauren Tappel, The Foodbank Inc.’s development and marketing manager.

“The first thing that comes to mind as to why that might be is because we have the combined unprecedented events of the Memorial Day tornadoes and the pandemic,” Tappel said. “For many who were hit hard by the tornadoes and were displaced or otherwise going through some type of financial hardship, the pandemic has been and continues to be hard and recovery takes a lot of time.”

Dayton Foodbank distributed 17.8 million pounds of food from July 2020 through July 2021. This included 5.5 million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Foodbank distributes food to its 100-plus partner agencies in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties, as well as via a drive-thru service on site at its 31,000-square-foot facility at 56 Armor Place.

During the 2020 fiscal year, the Foodbank served 37,249 households, or 105,995 individuals, by drive-thru food pick-up alone. During the 2021 fiscal year, 29,892 households, or 87,024 individuals, were served via drive-thru.

Along with the drive-thru and pantry distribution, the Foodbank operates several additional programs, including the Good-to-Go backpack program, meal sites and shelter programs, and an E-pantry program.

In total, the Foodbank served around 935,404 clients throughout fiscal year 2020, and around 608,116 clients during fiscal year 2021.

Although some programs and partner agencies were forced to shut down temporarily toward the beginning of the pandemic, Tappel said most have restarted, reopened and have been working to meet the needs in the community.

“In many ways, in the state of hunger, we’re seeing a lot of stabilization in terms of our network and our partners,” Tappel said. “Everyone seems to be adapting to the pandemic, and they’re able to conduct programs safely.”

Lingering effects of the pandemic

The FISH Fairborn Food Pantry served a total of 22,851 individuals in 2019, manager Jane Doorley said. In 2020, 35,000 individuals used the pantry.

“In 2020, we were serving between 350 and 400 families per week, which is about 1,600 people per week. This year, we’re serving between 180 and 200 families every week,” Doorley said.

Prior to the pandemic, Doorley said the pantry served around 150 to 160 families each week.

This year, Doorley said about 45% of the heads of household that visit the pantry are working, but not making enough money to buy adequate amounts of food.

More than a year into the pandemic, Doorley said the number of visitors to the pantry has not gone back to pre-COVID rates, noting that many individuals and families are struggling to recover from job and income loss and even psychological effects stemming from the pandemic and from food insecurity.

“This year it almost feels like people are more beaten down; they’ve had to live with it for so long, they don’t see a way out,” Doorley said.

Doorley, along with her husband and co-manager Bill, hopes to help provide a stability that individuals and families wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Poverty is hard. We were hoping it would be better this year than what it is, but people are still hungry and still struggling,” she said. “There is still a huge demand, but I think if we can help feed people and give them resources and tools, then they’re not in the crisis mode and can look beyond the immediate situation. When you’re worried about feeding your children that night, you have tunnel vision and all you can think about is, ‘Where is our next meal coming from?’”

The Doorleys also noted hunger and food insecurity is not always immediately recognizable, sharing the statistic that 50% of Americans will go to a food pantry at some point in their life.

“People have a picture of what the hungry look like and that’s not who they are — they look like you and I,” Doorley said.

FISH Fairborn operates Tuesdays and Fridays, from 1 to 4 p.m., in the Baptist Church Annex at 1149 N. Broad St. The organization plans to hold a Thanksgiving giveaway from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Food pantries like FISH are able to stay up and running through donations from individuals as well as local businesses. According to Doorley, FISH Fairborn also receives food for distribution from the Dayton Foodbank Inc.

Hunger misunderstood

Tappel said while the issue of food insecurity is being recognized more in recent years, it’s still easily overlooked and misunderstood.

“We typically define food insecurity as a state in which an individual does not have access to the food they need to live a healthy, active lifestyle at all times,” she said. “Like most, if not all, social issues, it’s extremely complex. It looks very different depending on who you are and how it’s affecting your life.”

Tappel noted a person or family may suddenly become food insecure following an illness or injury, loss of work or a low wage job, or due to mounting bills and other life expenses.

“There are a lot of different things that put someone in a position where they have to choose between skipping a meal or buying less groceries and paying another bill or another necessity,” she said.

As winter approaches, there is also the “heat or eat dilemma” that many families face, Tappel said.

“That’s when people have to ask themselves, ‘Do I pay my gas bill so that I can have a warm home or do I just skip every few meals so I can afford that?’” she said. “I think the pandemic really showed us that you can think you’re in a really good, solid situation, but something that you didn’t expect may occur and you find yourself looking for food assistance, and we’re always here for people needing that support.”


How You Can Help

The Dayton Daily News Valley Food Relief fundraiser is going on now. Look inside today’s paper for envelopes to donate, or go to https://www.daytondailynews.com/foodrelief/ to give online. So far, readers have donated $19,447 to the campaign.

The Foodbank Inc. will hold a drive-thru food distribution on from 1-3 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 23 at the Dixie Twin Drive-In, 6201 N Dixie Drive, in Dayton.

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