Local agencies help hundreds of families struggling from Coronavirus fallout

words and photos by Rosalie Murphy

Cars snake around the Akron Zoo during the last freezing day of the spring. A dozen volunteers, most in face masks and gloves, arrange food — corn and oranges, yogurt and eggs, Easter bread and Combos — on a long line of tables. Three weeks earlier, this system was brand-new. Now it looks like it’s an old hat. 

At 3 pm, two men walk up and collect food on foot. Then the first car rolls in. By 5 pm, 200 households — totaling about 540 people — will have collected food, according to Good Samaritan Hunger Center

“The need, obviously, in Akron, has probably doubled or tripled,” says Michele Smith, executive director of Good Samaritan Hunger Center, a mobile food pantry that has operated in Akron for almost four decades. Normally, she says, they serve about 280 people at four grocery distributions per week. In mid-April, she estimated they were serving as many as 400 people per week at drive-through distributions. 

When Ohio instituted public health orders closing buildings and mandating social distancing to slow the spread of Covid-19, food pantries like Good Samaritan had to scramble to meet twin challenges — restrictions on their normal operations and skyrocketing need. Good Samaritan moved from distributing food inside community centers to putting it in trunks in parking lots. 

The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank sends most of the food it collects to smaller neighborhood food pantries, including Good Samaritan. President and CEO Dan Flowers estimates that around 50 of 500 partner sites have stopped operating due to social distancing requirements.

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At the same time, they’re distributing 30% more food than this time last year. 

“One thing that happened in the month of March — that really stood out to me as a leading indicator about how our lives and worlds have changed — is that the number of new people showing up at food pantries went up a lot,” Dan says. “There was a 109% increase in first-time visitors to our network in March.” 

Once a month, the Foodbank opens for individual distributions, where they serve about 400 cars on average. In the first week of April — at a special off-cycle distribution — they served around 1,100. 

“It’s tough on the people out there, and I just don’t think that there’s any way to sugarcoat it,” Dan says. 

Food pantries are not always easy to access, however. Nearly all require that patrons meet certain income eligibility requirements, and some require referrals from other social service agencies or 211, United Way of Summit County’s all-purpose help line. 

But on April 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived most of those requirements to limit contact between patrons and volunteers or staff. Good Samaritan simply asked drive-thru patrons how many people were in their households to get a sense of how many people they served. 

“We used to have to sign everybody in; now we’re able to just count households and numbers of people. That’s a huge help. We’re able to maintain good, safe social distance,” Michele says.

Small businesses stepped up to serve families in need, too. Your Pizza Shop on West Exchange Street estimates that it served between 6,500 and 7,000 free meals to kids and families in the month beginning March 16. 

That’s 16,200 slices of pizza, 2,000 sandwiches, and dozens of pounds of fruit, juice, cookies and trail mix, says owner Angelo Gonzales.

“I’m from Buffalo, N.Y, and I remember when I was little, going to school and eating breakfast for free meals and lunch for free meals. On the weekends and [during] summer we’d have free meals at the school. I was raised on this system,” says Angelo Gonzales, founder of Your Pizza Shop. “I was cooking chicken wings and I set some wings in the fryer and I saw that the governor had shut all the schools down, and I immediately thought, ‘how are the kids going to eat?’”

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On March 12, Angelo posted on Facebook: “We know and understand that our kids depend on school lunches to have a good meal for the day.. in many cases, it will be their only meal of the day.. If you are going to have trouble with lunches for your children while the schools are closed, or know of someone that is going to need some help with food for their children during this time, please DM us… we’d like to try our best to help.”

The post was shared nearly 7,000 times. “From there, I guess, with our culture, it brought the community together, and it’s been a very special ride,” Angelo says. 

After three intense weeks, Angelo says, Your Pizza Shop was able to take its foot off the gas a little. Angelo fed only 30 kids on the Friday before APS’s scheduled spring break, suggesting to him that families had identified other reliable sources of food or that benefits had kicked in. He decided to scale back meal service to one day a week. Friday was their last day of service. 

Despite dozens of food pantries and businesses like Your Pizza Shop in Summit County, not everyone can access food from these sources. If you don’t drive, you may not be able to get food at a drive-through food pantry. Metro RTA has reduced service, making it more difficult to navigate the city by bus. People with disabilities were already facing a caregiver shortage, which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated. And immunocompromised people and seniors are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. 

Both Good Samaritan and the Foodbank accept walk-ups at their drive-through service, Michele and Dan say. 

If you need mobile meals, United Way of Summit County’s 211 program — a phone line that anyone can reach by dialing “211,” which will connect them to the services they’re looking for — is working with DoorDash to get food to people who are at high risk from COVID-19, according to communications manager Andrew Leask. The pilot program delivered more than 1,000 25-pound boxes of nonperishable food in Summit County, Canton, Massillon and Alliance during its first month. 

“As those numbers show, demand has been extraordinarily high, and we are reaching the end of the available deliveries. We’ll be taking new requests for DoorDash deliveries until April 30,” Andrew says. 

To request grocery delivery, call 2-1-1 between 9 am and 1 pm. An operator will ask a few questions, verifying that you are high-risk and that you meet the income requirement of earning 230% of the federal poverty level or less. If you qualify, they’ll schedule a delivery — though it may be scheduled as far out as two weeks due to demand, Andrew says. 

Meals on Wheels of Northeast Ohio has shifted to deliveries of 10 days’ worth of shelf-stable meals at a time, practicing no-contact delivery. Their next delivery is scheduled for April 22-24. Currently, hot and frozen meal delivery is scheduled to resume on May 18. To enroll, call 330-515-5605. 

As Ohio anticipates the gradual lifting of stay-at-home orders, food service providers are preparing for a season of dramatically increased need. The pandemic left hundreds of thousands of Ohioans unemployed, many of whom will not be able to return to work right away. Many Ohioans are still waiting on unemployment benefits. 

The Foodbank, which supplies food to food pantries across the region, is facing ongoing declines in inventory. Normally, Dan says, 95% of the food they distribute is donated directly from retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and distributors. That supply chain hasn’t been disrupted yet, but demand has increased — meaning the Foodbank is spending thousands of dollars buying food in bulk to give away. 

“There’s not going to be a charge to charities or people on any of that food, but it’s going to take six to eight weeks to get it here. And that’s the problem straight down the line,” Dan says. “Right now our inventory level is down. There’s more food on the way. And my concern is, over the next three to five weeks, how far down it will dip before those replenishments hit?” 

Charities also run on donations, which may dry up as time goes on. “Even when everybody can go back to work, you know, there’s going to be places that aren’t going to reopen,” Michele says. “I’m worried about… will food still be available? If people donate to us now, will they not donate to us later in the year when they normally do?”

“A lot of us live two weeks away from the food pantry line,” Dan adds. “It’s been more than two weeks.” 

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip. Reach her at rosalie@thedevilstrip.com.

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