Communities won’t let families go hungry

By Brittany Noble Charek

More families than ever are showing up at Ohio’s food banks.

“We are seeing a 20% increase in our food distribution across the network because of the increase in need,” said Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank President and CEO Dan Flowers. 

“For some families, the recovery will take years. We know we’ll be battling COVID-19 effects for months to come, but we are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of community support we have seen this year and hope the community will continue to stand with us as we stand by our neighbors in need this holiday season and in the many months ahead,” Flowers said.

This might seem like bad news, but government agencies, nonprofit organizations and everyday citizens are stepping up to make sure no Ohioans go hungry during these unprecedented times.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has adapted the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs during the 2020-2021 school year to allow for in-school and noncongregate take-home meal service with parent/guardian pickup options. Most school districts offer pick-up meals for all children ages 1-18 in their district, regardless of what school they attend.

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“As our nation recovers and reopens, we want to ensure that children continue to receive the nutritious breakfasts and lunches they count on during the school year wherever they are and however they are learning,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

When I learned about the program during lockdown last year, I went to my kids’ school district’s website and saw that they were offering “all children ages 1-18 three breakfasts and three lunches free of charge,” to be picked up during a certain time window. 

We have tons of food at home, I thought to myself. I don’t need to grab anything else.

Then again, I don’t actually have food — according to Homer Simpson, I just have ingredients to make food. When I thought about my usual afternoon routine: leaving work, picking up my son from preschool, making snacks for him and his older brother, sitting down for maybe 20 minutes and then getting back up again to make dinner, I was already exhausted.

I hopped in my car, went to the local elementary school where I picked up two generous size bags of food and two half gallons of milk (one for each kiddo).

No questions were asked, no ID was requested. The workers and volunteers seemed very happy to give away the food, and I didn’t have to go to the grocery store and expose myself or my kids to more risk of infection than necessary.

“It’s important to note that this year since the pandemic started, that nearly 3 out of every 10 people served by these food banks has never done this before, has never needed a food pantry before,” said First Lady of Ohio, Fran DeWine, in a Dec. 10 press conference. “We don’t have to get through this difficult time alone. Ohioans are both generous and resilient.”

“I’ve received more first-time callers than ever in my career,” said Sandy Hinkle, Executive Director of Feeding Medina County, a nonprofit that works with the food banks to fight food insecurity. “People call and say, ‘I’ve never had to do this before.’ I’m glad they’re calling because that’s why we’re here.” 

Monthly food distributions went from once a month to bi-monthly at the county fairgrounds. Typically they see around a hundred families at these drives, which went up to 175-250. Between 25,000-35,000 pounds of food have been distributed every other week since April.

That is something I know personally to be true in my community and close circles. When my neighbors are generous, it helps my family to be resilient, and vice-versa. Akron is full of little free libraries that have been converted to little free pantries by fellow citizens that stay well-stocked, including one outside of Angel Falls Coffee in Highland Square and several “Community Cupboards” throughout Portage Lakes.

Since March of 2020, the Ohio National Guard and the Ohio Association of Food Banks has distributed more than 79 million pounds of food around Ohio — a record-shattering number.

Feeding America projects that the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank’s eight-county service region (Carroll, Holmes, Medina, Portage, Stark, Summit, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties) has experienced an estimated 31% increase in the number of individuals facing hunger and an estimated 43% increase in the number of children struggling with hunger because of the virus.

When my entire family was sent to work and school from home in March 2020 until I returned to my job in August, I cooked at least 300 individual meals between food allergies, picky eaters (both boys have Autism Spectrum Disorder and major sensory issues and won’t eat anything sticky or saucy, even when they use silverware), and other dietary restrictions (my husband is a vegan). My husband probably cooked 100 meals and is a laundry champ, but the increase in domestic labor during this pandemic still weighs on all of us.

I grew up in a house where both parents cooked, and cooking became a relaxing creative outlet for me. Because of that, the convenience foods that were included in the USDA-funded grab-and-go lunches — pre-made sandwiches, individual packages of animal crackers, Uncrustables and other packaged foods — are things I would never even think of purchasing, but that was in the Beforetimes.

Now, when I actually have the energy to cook a meal, I make a double or triple portion and freeze what we don’t eat, and I use the microwave with unabashed frequency. I taught my middle schooler to read a label, follow directions, and make himself a meal. When my husband insists on warming up leftover pizza in the oven, I say, “OK, fine. You do it.” But the pizza button on our microwave lands on the perfect temperature for our 4-year old to enjoy a slice for breakfast. 

(Now that we’re all working from home, we can have anything for breakfast, FYI.)

If you are experiencing food insecurity, you’re certainly not the only one. Go to ohiofoodbanks.org/coronavirus to find resources in your local community.

Brittany Noble Charek is a writer, educator, and mama bear with a lot of feelings. She no longer gets embarrassed when caught talking (or singing!) to her dogs and/or houseplants.

Photo provided by Brittany Noble Charek

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