Coronavirus: Food insecurity has doubled locally, across Ohio

Ohio food insecurity rates have nearly doubled because of the coronavirus pandemic, a new study found, and food banks in the state say government action is needed now.

The Census Household Pulse Survey found that food insecurity rates in the state have gone from 13.9% to 23%.

“Those are scary numbers,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

Local people’s need for food increased sharply in March and the first part of April, according to service data from The Foodbank in Dayton.

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The Foodbank served twice as many households in March than it did in February at their drive-thru food pantry. About 2,000 families were served in February. That number jumped to 4,684 in March, said said Chief Development Officer Lee Lauren Truesdale. More than 8,000 were served in April, but that included two mass food distributions.

In Ohio, more than one in seven workers remain unemployed, and recent polls show one in four Americans missed last month’s rent or mortgage, or have little to no confidence they can pay next month on time. Hamler-Fugitt said a lot of food bank clients are saying they don’t know if they will be called back to their jobs.

“(Coronavirus) has created the perfect storm, releasing a downpour of difficulties on Ohio families,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

Hunger is an early indicator of a problem, Hamler-Fugitt said. She said homelessness is a lagging indicator and she is worried about more and more people becoming homeless.

Foodbanks across the country have rapidly shifted the way they operate to meet demand while mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, and they haven’t seen demand ease off for three months. Hamler-Fugitt said food banks in Ohio are buying more food than ever before.

Truesdale said the number of people coming to The Foodbank’s drive-thru and mass distributions — nearly 2,500 people in one day last week and almost half of those new to the food assistance system — point to a large number of people in the Miami Valley who have been laid off and don’t know when they’ll go back to work. The number of new families also points to people who may not have needed help in March or April, but now have spent their stimulus checks or savings and need help.

“We know that there are so many families who continue to need help,” Truesdale said.

Because of the statewide shutdown, the food banks’ supply chains have been disrupted. This means fewer retail donations and a surge in food prices putting additional pressure on family food budgets. The Foodbank in Dayton has been going directly to food manufacturers, growers and canneries to get food for distribution.

“Congress attempted to put an umbrella over families’ heads by means of expanding SNAP aid and increasing unemployment benefits, but it hasn’t been enough,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “The increase in food prices makes the current SNAP benefit amounts even more inadequate to meet basic food needs. Our foodbanks simply cannot keep up with this level of demand – congressional action is needed now.”

As Congress negotiates the next stimulus package, Hamler-Fugitt said Ohio’s food banks urge members to consider a temporary 15% increase in the maximum SNAP benefit for all households.

“This modest change would add just $25 per person per month, but this small increase will do a lot to address hunger and food insecurity,” she said. “We need to get people back into the grocery store check out line.”

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Increasing SNAP benefits would also help stimulate the economy, as people would be shopping at grocery stores. Truesdale said that the items families get at the food bank are different from items they could buy at the grocery store, so SNAP benefits and food assistance pair nicely.

“We’re really worried that grocery stores won’t survive this, especially in low income areas,” Hamler-Fuggit said.

Hamler-Fugitt said the government should also think of the more than 30 million children across America who participate in school and summer meal programs and expand the Pandemic-EBT program for them.

“The need for increasing SNAP benefits and ensuring the health and nutrition of Ohio and American families is urgent and it cannot wait,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “Americans are drowning.”

Those who haven’t been affected by the coronavirus pandemic should consider donating to their local food bank or food pantry, Hamler-Fugitt said.

“We could sure use it,” she said.

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