The pandemic is making it harder for Ohioans with disabilities to access food

by Alicia M. Hopkins

The average person can go to a grocery store and buy the food they need on a regular basis. Imagine being a person who relies on someone, or a service, to be able to access food. Imagine living on such a low income that you don’t have extra money to create an emergency supply of food. Or think about being on a special diet that requires special foods that might be difficult to find or pre-order even in normal circumstances.

Now, think about trying to do all of that during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One in four Americans has some type of disability. Many people with disabilities rely on programs in their community to help them stay independent. Some require specialized transportation to get around. For example, some people use paratransit or public grocery buses to reach grocery stores; others have a caregiver take them to the store so they can pick out their own food; others have caregivers who do all the shopping. There are also folks who rely on popular programs like Meals on Wheels, where hot or cold meals are delivered weekly to their home. 

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When services for the disabled are reduced by any margin, accessing food gets harder. Food pantries, especially those stocked by centralized food banks, often ask for proxy letters, which caretakers or family members carry with them to verify that they’re picking up food for someone who meets the pantry’s guidelines. Sometimes this process creates unnecessary hoops for individuals to be able to access food. Also, aides who work with people with disabilities typically work limited hours, making it even more difficult to find someone to spend hours in line at a food bank. 

During the pandemic, we’ve found that food access has been an issue for many Ohioans with disabilities. People in rural communities have had the most difficulty accessing food. Many programs that provide food in these communities are run by senior programs. Initially, anyone 59 and younger with a disability didn’t qualify for assistance, but then programs were expanded to include more people. In rural communities where transportation is limited, drive-up food pantries excluded people who don’t drive. 

Photo: Rosalie Murphy

Eventually, food pantries in the bigger cities also moved to a drive-up model. This presented new issues for anyone who didn’t drive. For so long, we have been pushing people to rely on public transportation, but suddenly, if you didn’t have a friend with a car, then you couldn’t get food. This issue affected people with disabilities and low-income families. 

Many of the food pantries across Ohio rely on volunteers who are elderly people, so some food pantries completely shut down as their volunteers were social distancing. 

Additionally, we found that bus services were being cut in several cities across Ohio. In Summit County, the Akron Metropolitan Transit authority provides grocery buses to and from senior/disabled public housing complexes on a weekly basis along with paratransit services. These services were eventually cut without notifying the people affected, including me. 

One man who relies on this service waited for over an hour in the rain in Cuyahoga Falls one day for the bus to come to take him to the store and it never came. Someone helped him get food after he posted about his experience on social media. When we cut vital services that people with disabilities and seniors rely on, we make it more difficult for them to access food and goods they need. 

Some people who have food allergies were widely affected by this pandemic as well.  Around April 7, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that Ohioans could utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits (SNAP) with online orders for curbside pick up. After much research, I discovered that only a handful of Walmart locations allowed SNAP for curbside pickup with limited availability and only a small number of other grocery stores had the technology to do this. Not being able to find stores that have the technology to handle curbside SNAP payments takes away the ability to have choice. Additionally, it may force consumers to use corporate chains instead of mom-and-pop shops.

One Lakewood family had searched for weeks for a spot in a curbside pickup calendar at one of the few stores accepting SNAP for curbside pickup. The mother, Theresa Sweeny, finally got a spot at a location in Oberlin. This family has someone with extreme food allergies, so there were no substitutions allowed in their order. A couple orders went smoothly, but then there was an incident where Walmart website glitches caused an error with the SNAP setup and it directly debited the order out of their bank account. This caused some financial stress. Many families who get SNAP benefits do not have additional funds to pay for items needed beyond basic bills. Additionally, some of the food in their curbside pickup was stored improperly, so it was spoiled or rotting. They worked with Walmart to get credit for damaged produce and spoiled meat. It was not an easy process, Theresa says. 

I also struggled to get a spot for food. It wasn’t until after reaching out to State Representative Emilia Sykes’s office and my local independent living center that I even located a Walmart to do curbside pickups with SNAP. I also ran into several challenges. I could not get a curbside slot that lined up with my aide’s hours. Additionally, there were extreme limits on what and how much I could purchase. I eat a special diet due to food allergies, so only being allowed to have two of each item made my life challenging. In an average month, we only shop 2-3 times per month. 

A woman in Dayton told me about her challenges with food access. She was very sick and couldn’t go out. She wasn’t able to go pick up food at a store and didn’t have anyone to go for her. A friend pulled together resources for food to be delivered from Whole Foods, purchased through Amazon. She eventually was able to access home delivered meals through her home care waiver program. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were even challenges with people being able to access programs like Meals on Wheels if they were not already set up for services from those agencies. One woman from Cleveland called for several weeks and couldn’t get any assistance. Our Facebook group, Ohio Disabled Peer Support Group, helped her locate pantries that offered food delivery.

This truly is a matter that must be addressed. Disability looks different for everyone, but food should be something that everyone can access, regardless of payment source or financial situation. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for people to realize we need better policies in place around emergency preparedness planning to allow people to access food. 

On June 3, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services announced that, in addition to online ordering at Giant Eagle, Walmart and some Kroger stores, SNAP-eligible residents could also order food online through Walmart and Amazon. (Only Walmart and Amazon allow online buying with EBT cards; the other grocers require payment inside the store or at curbside pickup, according to the state.)

This is a step in the right direction. There is much more to be done. Statewide organizations will need to work on emergency preparedness planning around food access to make sure that underrepresented populations have access. 

Alicia Hopkins is an artist and the founder of the All Abilities Art Expo. 

Top: Good Samaritan Hunger Center operates a drive-through food pantry in April. (Photo: Rosalie Murphy.)