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Ohio's hunger-relief network provides food and personal care items to nearly one million Ohioans each month.
In the latest COVID variant surge, Ohio's hunger-relief network is facing unique challenges. With missed wages due to illness, quarantining and remote learning for kids, struggling families rely on food banks across the state — and food banks rely on the support of volunteers.
In the early days of the pandemic, said Kurt Keiber, president and chief executive of the Freestore Foodbank in southwest Ohio, the Ohio National Guard helped fill in the gaps when volunteers had to stay home. Two years later, he noted, volunteer levels still are dramatically low.
"We have to have more space for the volunteers in order to keep them safe by socially distancing as well as setting up Plexiglas barriers between them," he said. "But not getting enough volunteers in to pack boxes of food or sort through the canned goods from food drives has been a bit of a challenge."
Some Ohioans on fixed incomes are turning to food banks because of higher energy, housing and food costs, as well as the end of the advanced expanded Child Tax Credits. Reiber estimated 75% of the families they've served at large-scale food distributions in the past two years have never before had to use a food pantry.
Keeping food-bank shelves stocked is another struggle, as Reiber said they're also contending with rising food prices.
"A pound of hamburger has gone up over 50%; peanut butter has gone up 45% as far as overall cost," he said. "So, that's coupled with the supply-chain issues, as far as not getting the resources in, continues to drive prices up as well."
Despite the setbacks, Reiber said the outpouring of support from the community has made a big difference in keeping operations going.
"Last year alone, when we would have spent about $800,000 on purchased food, we spent over $4 million on food, and that was something we hadn't planned on," he said. "Fortunately, the support that we received from our community allowed us to go out there and make those purchases, and restock the shelves of the families who we are serving."
Reiber encouraged Ohioans to reach out to freestorefoodbank.org or their local food bank or pantry to volunteer their time or donate money if they can.