They came in dark-colored sedans, beat-up pick-up trucks, and shiny SUVs, with trunks popped up or windows rolled down. Hundreds of residents from all corners of Dayton — elderly vets, young families, single men and women, disabled individuals — in anticipation of getting a laminated orange card allowing them to pick up a week’s worth of groceries. The cars filled a side street in a residential corner of east Dayton, a largely derelict and warehouse-ridden neighborhood in this post-industrial city.
“I think we’re going to serve over 1,000 families today,” says Nicole Adkins, who sports reddish-brown hair and a dark red shirt emblazoned with the word “Faith.” Adkins is the founder of With God’s Grace, a 4-year-old mobile pantry that serves low-income neighborhoods in Dayton and surrounding areas.
As Adkins surveys the growing line of cars now snaking around the block, she explains there will be two more drive-throughs this week in different parts of the city. Once a grocery-style pantry where people could walk up, With God’s Grace now serves only those with access to a car and hands out pre-arranged boxes of food to prevent cross-contamination. Volunteers go through a temperature check and wear gloves.
“It is what it is, but we’re signing them in and moving them up,” Adkins says of the long queue. She notes that demand has more than doubled since local restaurants, bars and other entertainment hubs have closed down to adhere with public health guidelines.
Adkins, who started the pantry out of her own house in 2015, represents a certain kind of working-class Ohioan with a scrappy, do-it-yourself attitude and an earnest willingness to address social issues outside the distractions of politics. Day-to-day problems like the growing numbers of hungry Ohioans who come to Adkins’ door as a result of COVID-19 have so far deflected attention from politics in this swing state. As of now the Democratic primary – which will be conducted almost entirely through absentee ballots and has all but been resolved in favor of Joe Biden – is scheduled for April 28. But how the worsening hunger crisis in Ohio is being handled may impact the outcome of the 2020 election in November. For now, local voters overwhelmingly favor state leadership over the federal government in dealing with the pandemic in this key battleground state that went for Donald Trump in 2016.
In the meantime, an ever-increasing number of Daytonians have been sitting in their cars for over an hour outside of With God’s Grace headquarters. Several cars have already driven off. “We’ve never had to do this before,” Adkins tells an elderly woman asking about the wait. In two hours, the pantry will close for the day; it will reopen in the evening. Many of those currently waiting will not be served.
Food banks and pantries like With God’s Grace are an everyday reality in Ohio, where one in seven Ohioans struggle to provide for themselves and food insecurity surpasses regional and national rates. With COVID-19 now moving into the heartland and panic buying the order of the day, more than 1.75 million Ohio residents considered food-insecure are increasingly relying on these longtime community institutions.
“I don’t have somebody who’s counting the people that are turned away without being helped,” says Ohio Association of Food Banks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt. But since mid-March, demand at the over 3,500 member charities and food banks affiliated with the association shot up between 100% and 500%, depending on the region. “We’re not the government. We’re the charitable sector who has stepped in because we’re responding quicker than government can respond.”
Following a national trend, many local food advocates and pantry managers have been left scrambling for resources as they deal with the hunger crisis on the front lines. Some feel as though the federal government did not provide enough support from the beginning in anticipating the transitional, low-wage workers who are newly unemployed. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported more than 850,000 jobless claims in the last month. By comparison, there were a total of 715,512 jobless claims filed in 2018 and 2019 combined. As of April 11, Ohio currently ranks eighth in the country in terms of initial unemployment claims, according to official figures released from the Labor Department.
In several states including Ohio, the National Guard has been called in to help food banks manage their resources as demand skyrockets and volunteer numbers dwindle in light of the pandemic.
“All I know is that [the government] better get these checks to people really quick,” Hamler-Fugitt adds, referring to one-time direct payments of up to $1,200 that every American earning $75,000 or under will soon receive. “We better get these unemployment systems cranking out these benefits; we better get SNAP benefits to everyone who’s lost their job. We’re going to see the test of how the government responds.”
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides a lifeline for many low-income Americans, including families with children living below the poverty level, seniors on a limited pension and disabled individuals. On average, SNAP participants receive about $127 a month for food-related expenses, the majority of whom are families with children, and a third are African-American. But SNAP benefits are primarily designed to support a family’s food budget, and participating families usually spend them within the first two weeks of the month. Experts also say it’s become much harder for these households to stockpile when groceries and food banks are starting to run out of basic food items.
“It’s another example of where you’re closer to the edge or have fewer resources, the problems are multiplied and magnified,” says Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The recently passed CARES Act has greatly widened the scope of who can receive unemployment benefits and increased the overall dollar amount, but major structural challenges remain. The online claims system is antiquated and hard to use, and state officials weren’t prepared to deal with a sudden deluge in applications, according to Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
In Dayton, With God’s Grace volunteer Sarah Carson says the government needs to step in and provide overwhelmed food pantries with more food and equipment. The stimulus, she says, is nothing but a Band-Aid, given long-term concerns like mortgage payments and debt.
“‘Cause when times get tough, you see who steps in and handles things. [Who] handles it the way it needs to be handled and helps the bottom people like us,” the 44-year-old Democrat says. “Not [those helping] CEOs or corporate America: Who’s helping us.”
“Let me tell you: I have more faith in the governor of the state of Ohio than the people in Washington,” says 49-year-old independent contractor Richard Gilbertson Jr., who volunteers at With God’s Grace as well as his church. “[Gov. Mike DeWine] knows what he’s doing. He’s stepping up.”
The food pantry is also bringing people together across political lines, a notable example of shared civic duty in predominantly blue-collar Dayton, which voted for Trump in 2016. Montgomery County, where Dayton sits, was almost equally split between Trump and Hilary Clinton in the last election. “People are people. The only ones I don’t care for are the politicians,” says 75-year-old retiree Ken Jones with conviction as he packs boxes of canned goods in the pantry warehouse. Jones voted blue for most of his life but feels his party no longer represents the people. “I didn’t mind voting for the first woman president in 2016, but I just don’t trust the Democratic Party,” he says. He plans to vote for Trump this year.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, the Trump administration had been planning to tighten SNAP eligibility requirements throughout the country, touting the economy’s steady progress. The proposed cuts would have required current recipients who are unemployed, able-bodied and without children, to find work in order to continue receiving benefits.
In late March, as a response to the pandemic, the government introduced emergency legislation to boost SNAP and unemployment benefits for low-income individuals and workers hit hardest by COVID-19. But the SNAP increase may only last through May and remains optional for states. “We need to make sure that people can get on SNAP and maintain access to SNAP if they’re out of work,” Bolen says, noting this would benefit not only individuals, but also the local economies.
Over 200 miles northeast of Dayton, the pastor of a historic black church in Cleveland is worried about a potential scarcity in resources. The majority of Antioch Baptist Church’s donations comes from the Sunday morning service, says Reverend Todd Davidson, and the church being closed has presented new challenges. A decrease in donations could impact the livelihoods of church staff, who receive an hourly wage and remain ineligible for unemployment.
Antioch Baptist Church is located in one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods, where the median income is around $10,000 per year. The church runs a hot meals program three days a week, and Davidson foresees the need increasing more than threefold if the outbreak does not cease.
“Hopefully it doesn’t last and our resources outlast the chaos,” Davidson says. Antioch gets food from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, which currently estimates that expenses for the next six months will be over $15 million, a 30% increase over its original budget because of COVID-19.
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Although the current administration has touted the country’s economic performance over the last four years, the Buckeye State has only recently managed to catch up with the rest of the country. Since 2001, the economic blowback in Ohio has been compounded: The state was still struggling to recover from a devastating economic downturn in 2001 that saw over 1 million high-paying manufacturing jobs disappear in the Midwest, and then the Great Recession hit in 2007. Only in 2018 did Ohio’s unemployment finally drop and job availability stabilize to the normal levels prior to the 2001 Midwestern recession.
In the meantime, however, day-to-day inequality has persisted in the state. Wage growth continues to lag while the local and national wealth gaps have worsened. For many working-class Ohioans, household income remains low, job security and quality are tenuous, and poverty runs rampant in both urban and rural areas. So while a large portion of the country saw some recovery after 2007, Hamler-Fugitt contends that Ohio really didn’t. “We have basically just returned to the pre-recessionary numbers of food insecurity and poverty rates,” the 30-year anti-hunger advocate says.
Jo Ann Kattine, an 80-year-old woman who runs a food pantry in rural Georgetown, says her organization Helping Hands serves over 800 families a month in southern Ohio. Most are Appalachian in origin. With a population of about 4,000, Georgetown is the seat of Brown County, which is part of a poor and largely agricultural region that suffers from some of the highest food insecurity rates in Ohio. About 14% of Brown County is considered food-insecure, although rates are significantly higher in nearby areas like Adams and Scioto counties, where about one in four children struggle to feed themselves. Helping Hands is the only local food pantry available to serve hungry families from the region, excluding one or two outreach organizations in nearby Cincinnati.
Kattine, a self-professed “farm gal” who has run Helping Hands for 40 years, has seen the need increase in recent weeks, particularly given the newly unemployed. She notes the folks who have been laid off from now-closed fast-food restaurants in the area. A lifelong Democrat who works for the Brown County Board of Elections, she also thinks the White House has been behind on its coronavirus response since the initial outbreak in China. In a county where 74% of residents voted for Trump in 2016, Ms. Kattine is a rare blue dot.
“We’ll make it through. This is the United States,” she adds. “If they’ll just listen to our doctors and our scientists that live with this every day, they’ll come through with a cure. If we’d have been on this earlier, we’d have probably had something by now.”
Kattine says so far she’s not worried about COVID-19 affecting the daily routine at Helping Hands. “Maybe I’m not looking at it as serious as I should, but I don’t feel we’re in dangerous territory as … the bigger, closer, congested areas.” (As of April 14, six Brown County residents have contracted the virus, one of whom died in intensive care.) All the same, she has closed off the pantry building to visitors and told volunteers to start pre-packing grocery boxes. “We’re learning as everybody else is learning.”
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Broad Street Food Pantry, located in a historically black neighborhood in the state capital of Columbus, implemented safety measures around mid-March, just as the pandemic was beginning to spread across the state. Franklin County was ranked the ninth most food-insecure county in Ohio in 2019, and the once-vibrant King-Lincoln district where the 50-year-old pantry stands is considered a huge food desert in Columbus. Broad Street serves about 600 area families each month, and over 60 percent of its visitors are minorities.
Pantry manager Kathy Kelly-Long said they first used an order system in which people could check off their food preferences on a form and volunteers would fill their orders. In late March, the pantry switched to a drive-up model.
Yelana Grant, a volunteer and occasional recipient who lives nearby, says social distancing has been particularly hard for her. A 57-year-old stroke survivor, Grant says she trusts God to take care of her while volunteering. The best part of it is the elderly folks she gets to meet, whom she calls her “sunshine.”
“They don’t know how important this pantry is, especially for the seniors,” Grant says. She mentions that most of her friends only get $15 in SNAP benefits per month. According to the Brookings Institute, this is typical for most low-income families with an elderly member, who are unable to advocate for more benefits largely due to a lack of awareness and education surrounding the application process.
“Until you walk in them shoes and you know what the families are going through, I don’t think a lot of people see that hunger is in everybody,” Adkins says as With God’s Grace wraps up its weekly drive-through in east Dayton. She mentions her own experience as a young mother going through a divorce and having to feed three young kids. Back then, she had regularly skipped meals to make sure her children could eat.
“We never thought we were going to be in this situation,” she says of the pandemic. “But there are so many people who never thought they’d be lining up outside a food pantry.”
She paused. “And now we’re gonna have to be the ones to help them get through this.”
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