‘You are not alone’: How the Akron-Canton Foodbank is tackling food insecurity during COVID-19

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

In the parking lot behind the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, a handful of Ohio National Guard members dash between idling cars. One lifts a bag of potatoes with both hands and jogs toward a car with an open trunk. He fits the potatoes between a pair of unmarked cardboard boxes packed with loaves of bread and fresh produce.

The guard is here to help distribute groceries through a contactless pickup line. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery pickup days and the guard members who help run them have both become part of the Foodbank’s new normal.

Since 1982, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has supplied emergency food to eight Ohio counties. In 2019, the Foodbank distributed  more than 12.6 million pounds of food across Summit County alone.

But over the last year, the way the Foodbank does that work has changed a lot. 

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Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks, estimates that food insecurity has jumped by 31% in Summit County over the last 10 months as a result of COVID-19.

After Summit County reached a record-breaking 16.2% unemployment rate in April, Dan Flowers, president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, says he knew the Foodbank would have to get creative.

Typically, Flowers has prioritized what food bankers call client choice. When clients are able to shop a food pantry and choose which foods they’d like, Flowers says the fear and stigma often associated with a Foodbank visit begin to dissipate. 

But with the onset of the pandemic, Flowers says many client choice models — like shopping a food pantry in person — were just too risky.

“We’re just going to have to pivot,” says Flowers, recalling the first weeks of pandemic. “So we went into the food box making business, and we’ve never really been big food box makers. Why would you make boxes when the idea is to put it on a shelf so people can choose what they want themselves?”

Food boxes often contain non-perishable staples like pasta, rice, soups and cereals, along with canned items like meat, vegetables and beans. In addition to pre-packaged food boxes, the Foodbank also distributes perishables like fruit, bread and potatoes.

To receive boxed groceries directly from the Foodbank, clients only need to present a photo ID.

“Normally, that work is done by the charities,” Flowers says. “We’re the supplier. We haven’t always done this kind of direct stuff. But when COVID came, we said ‘Okay, let’s ramp this thing up.’”

Since April 9, the Foodbank has been distributing food directly from its parking lot with the help of 42 Ohio National Guard members. 

“The first time we did it, it was a wing and a prayer,” Flowers says. “On that first day, we had like 1800 cars come through the line. That was the template, and we’ve just been improving it ever since.”

For families that have lost income as a result of COVID-19, the Foodbank’s parking lot grocery distribution can be a lifeline.

For Maurice Howard, who has been coming to food distributions for the last four months, getting food to churches and other organizations that serve hot meals directly to clients has been his top priority since his own church stopped serving hot meals in March.

Howard, who is a member of Zion Lutheran Church on South High Street, says he misses cooking for people and is concerned about how people who aren’t able to cook for themselves will fare throughout the pandemic.

Howard also owns a community garden on the city’s south side, where grocery stores are few and far between. A pilot himself, Howard says he hopes the garden will help young people learn how to grow and harvest their own food while providing them with the opportunity to trade hours of work in the garden for free or discounted hours of flight school with the help of community partners.

A few hundred people from the front of the line, Howard leans against the hood of his car, waiting for distribution to start. Howard’s friend, 89-year-old Dale Busse, who is the chair of Zion Lutheran’s outreach committee, sits in the passenger seat, a colorful mask pulled across his white beard.

Behind them, clients let their cars idle in line on West Bartges Street, reading books or fiddling with their phones while they wait.

In the parking lot behind the Foodbank, a cluster of volunteers break into applause. In March, during the first weeks of the pandemic, Flowers closed the Foodbank to volunteers entirely. Now, the Foodbank has adapted, though it hosts far fewer volunteers than it did in 2019.

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Public relations and communications manager Raven Gayheart says the Foodbank hosted more than 12,000 volunteers in 2019, clocking more than 60,000 hours of volunteer work.

“It was equivalent to 27 full-time employees,” Gayheart says. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Now, Gayheart says the National Guard helps compensate for the loss in volunteers.

Inside the Foodbank’s warehouse, two guard members drive forklifts. Behind them, thousands of containers of peanut butter sit on wooden pallets, wrapped in plastic, waiting to be distributed to the Foodbank’s 500 member hunger-relief programs.

The Foodbank’s member hunger-relief programs include food pantries, hot meal services, soup kitchens, religious organizations and other food distribution points across eight counties.

The Foodbank’s warehouse and distribution facility is more than 83,000 square feet, and boasts dozens of rows of shelves, all stacked with pallets of non-perishable foods. In order to get that food to the people and agencies that need it most, the Foodbank did something it’s never done before: Deliveries.

“Before 2020, the Foodbank was not in the food delivery business,” Flowers explains. “Charities would come to us. We’d have 30 or 50 different charities come every day, we’d load their trucks up and they’d take it back to where they distribute it. But this year, we’ve had so many agencies go down and so many volunteers go down that we jumped into the delivery business with the Ohio National Guard.”

Initially, Flowers says he was hesitant to host the guard. “To be honest, I was very reluctant,” he says. “I just didn’t want to militarize the Foodbank.” 

The Foodbank’s warehouse and distribution facility is just outside of Akron’s Lane-Wooster neighborhood, where the National Guard tear gassed residents during a 1968 uprising — a history that Flowers says remains painful for some in the neighborhood.

But after months of collaboration, Flowers says the extra help is much appreciated. In fact, it allowed the Foodbank to make 800 food deliveries to regional agencies between March and December 2020.

“It ended up being the best thing that has happened in 2020, hands down,” says Flowers. “They brought four giant trucks and just asked what we wanted them to do. So they started working the box line. They’re the ones that helped us pattern out these parking lot giveaways.”

Over the last year, Flowers says the Foodbank has seen a consistent 30% increase in first time clients on food distribution days. For 13.7 million households across the country, missing one paycheck could mean going hungry. 

“Every time we have a distribution, 3 in 10 people in the line have never in their life been to a food pantry,” Flowers says. “They’re not in our system. Their names are not in our system.”

Still, Flowers says many clients arrive at the Foodbank feeling ashamed or afraid. To them, he says: “You are not alone.”

At its root, Flowers calls the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank “the best moral role model.”

“I’m still in with the possibility of [people’s] humanity,” Flowers says. “Or, at the very least, I want you to live. That’s the ultimate message we’re sending. Food is essential to sustain human life and we are committed to sustaining human life, which is a commitment to humanity at its core.”

The Foodbank, says Flowers, is a testament to what he calls “the compassion of the afflicted” — or, the cyclical nature of giving and receiving.

“I think that part of our life experience is to find ourselves as the helper and the helped,” Flowers says. “And we’re all destined to play those roles in life. That’s just the way the wheel turns.”

“I think about in my own life how quickly I am to condemn, or not extend grace to the people who need it. The Foodbank is an example to me day-in and day-out that all human life has value,” Flowers adds. “It forces me to grapple with my wont want to limit grace. It always brings me back to the table.”

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.