Need rises, food relief follows
- Published: October 2, 2020
Food insecurity in the U.S. is reaching record heights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic recession. And even in the relatively well-off community of Yellow Springs, some residents have difficulty putting food on the table.
The Little Free Pantries in town are regularly emptied. A growing local homeless population is relying on $25 Tom’s Market food vouchers to eat. Some seniors staying home to reduce exposure to COVID-19 continue to depend on regular food deliveries.
Those working to feed hungry villagers are seeing the need here rise. The recent uptick started at the end of July, when the $600 unemployment enhancement expired, according to Melissa Heston, who is coordinating food assistance efforts for the Yellow Springs Community Foundation.
“We saw it increase,” she said of local food need. “With the lack of government support, people who may have had some savings now don’t.”
So far, the village has stepped up with both monetary and food donations. The community foundation has allocated $25,250 to a variety of food assistance efforts in Yellow Springs, which range from deliveries of bread to bimonthly distributions at the community food pantry.
According to Yellow Springs Police Department’s community outreach specialist Florence Randolph, who is often at the front lines of local food assistance, the generosity of the community has shone through this year.
“I think we’ve done a tremendous job,” Randolph said of the efforts. “I don’t know of any needs for food that have gone unmet and if they have, it’s because they haven’t asked.”
“Whenever we get a request, we make sure people have food to eat,” she added.
But as the need for food rises here, will villagers continue to support efforts to meet them? Heston hopes so, but worries that some in the village don’t see the food needs of those living among us, including their neighbors next door, or their children’s classmates.
“I don’t think people see the need,” she said. “We really need to meet the need, because there are just more people.”
According to projections from Feeding America, nearly one out of every five Ohioans lacks reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Their estimate for Greene County is 17%, which means close to 30,000 people in the county, and more than 600 villagers, might not know where their next meal will come from.
Randolph noted that the local homeless population, which has swelled this summer, includes those needing food the most here. There are somewhere between 15 and 18 new homeless people now living here, and they often utilize the Little Free Pantries or the Tom’s gift certificates, according to Randolph. The YSPD also provides snack bags to local youth with money from the Police Fund.
“We support everyone who lives, visits and works in Yellow Springs, if we can,” Randolph said.
Recently, those involved in food relief have worried how sustainable current food assistance efforts are. For instance, Heston has observed that many of the same villagers are donating.
“Even though they are wonderful, we can’t keep asking the same people over and over,” she said. “It’s time to educate a whole new group of philanthropists.”
This week the News looks at food relief efforts so far and challenges organizers are facing.
Overview of food relief
The community foundation has raised $42,238 for its “Food Insecurity Fund” since the start of the pandemic, slightly more than half of which has been spent. A variety of food efforts have been funded, including both new projects and longstanding programs.
As an example of the former, $15,000 has been spent on $25 vouchers to Tom’s Market, 400 of which have been given to local school families and 200 to other villagers in need. As of early September, $5,750 had been redeemed.
Other money has gone to Heartbeat Community Farm and Operation Breadrunner in which fresh baked loaves of bread are delivered to hungry villagers. The foundation has also bought a few hundred cookbooks, “Good and Cheap,” which offers recipes and meal planning ideas on a budget of $4 per person per day, the amount provided by the federal food assistance program SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Foundation grants have been given to more established efforts too, such as the Yellow Springs Community Food Pantry ($4,500) and the Walnut Street Little Free Pantry ($2,250), with an additional $2,000 going to the new Dayton Street Little Free Pantry, all for the purchase of food.
Meanwhile, Yellow Springs Schools has committed to delivering food to the more than 150 students on free and reduced lunch. Agraria started a “generous gardeners” program for villagers with a green thumb to donate their extra produce, while continuing to run a SNAP purchasing program at the local farmers market. And the senior center is delivering food pantry distributions to those not comfortable venturing out in public.
Together, the efforts amount to a significant undertaking, even if their future is uncertain.
“It’s really been a community effort,” Randolph reflected.
Little Free Pantries grow
There’s a lot that the town’s two Little Free Pantries in the village can do. Kids can grab a fruit cup or granola bar from them on their way home from school. Families just looking to put dinner on the table can quickly grab a box of macaroni and cheese and a can of tuna.
It’s convenient and anonymous, according to Kim Horn, who erected the first Little Free Pantry in town, on South Walnut Street, in 2016.
“That’s why people like them — the anonymity, and they can go anytime,” Horn said.
But the Little Free Pantries are not a place for those who are chronically food insecure to rely on. Because they only offer nonperishable foods, and not produce or milk, they can’t offer a balanced diet. And lately, the pantries have been emptied out because more people are desperate for food in uncertain times.
“What we have noticed is that it gets completely cleared out frequently, which is a challenge,” Horn said. “We can’t keep up at that pace.”
Earlier this year, village resident Brendan Sheehan built a second Little Free Pantry for the village in Bill Duncan Park on Dayton Street. But even with two, there’s still not enough.
As a result, the pantries are holding a Fall food drive this Saturday, Sept. 26. Donations can be dropped off at the farmers market from 8 a.m. to noon or at the Yellow Springs Presbyterian Church’s Walnut Street entrance from 1 to 4 p.m. Nonperishable and nonexpired items are welcome. Those with questions or concerns can contact Horn at email@example.com.
In addition to needing more food, the pantries also need the right blend of items. Since the pantry is mostly stocked by villagers and other passersby, it can be a “mishmash of items,” Horn observed. Recently some have left produce and even meat, which quickly rot and spoil in the hot boxes.
“You can’t guarantee what people are going to drop off,” she said.
So the Little Free Pantry has been using their community foundation funding to supplement donations with critical items such as those containing protein. Jars of peanut butter and jelly, cans of chicken and tuna, oatmeal, cereal, snacks, canned fruit and fruit juice are the most popular items and the first to go. Others, like SpaghettiOs and ramen, are also popular, since they are “quick, easy and a complete meal,” Horn said. Volunteers are now regularly checking the pantries and using a backstock area at the Presbyterian Church to keep them filled with staple items.
In addition to participating in the drive, Horn said villagers could make it a habit to pick up a few extra items while shopping at Tom’s or add some products to their Kroger Clicklist to support the pantry. They can also help by monitoring the pantry to make sure it is stocked and free of items that shouldn’t be there.
“The most helpful thing is knowing that people are keeping an eye on it and taking it under their wing,” she said.
Despite an apparent act of vandalism a few weeks ago when a bag of flour was emptied into, and around, the pantry, the support for the Little Free Pantries this year has been palpable, Horn observed.
“There is a lot of love and support for the pantries,” she said. “It really is not something that one person can do alone. It does take the support of the village.”
Community Food Pantry keeps on
For those needing a more consistent and stable supply of food, there’s the Yellow Springs Community Food Pantry. According to organizer Paula Hurwitz, while the little free pantries are ideal for quick snacks or last-minute meals, the community food pantry provides several weeks of food at their bimonthly distribution.
“We’re only open twice per month, but we give out a significant amount of food,” she said.
Since it’s a food pantry, and not a food bank, the pantry only distributes nonperishable foods and household goods. It’s open on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Yellow Springs United Methodist Church. Unlike the Little Free Pantries, which can and do serve a wider area population, the community food pantry is only for residents of Yellow Springs, Clifton and Miami Township.
The pantry currently serves about 15 people, Hurwitz said, which is slightly less than average for the pantry. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, numbers were lower as people stayed home.
“Our population in the peak of COVID was really low but it seems to be picking up again,” Hurwitz said.
One reason for that is that the pantry was dispensing its food at the door during the pandemic’s first few months, but is now allowing clients to come into the church to choose their food.
“Our clientele likes that,” Hurwitz said.
Others still wary of going out are getting pantry food delivered to them in a partnership with the Yellow Springs Senior Center. About a dozen local seniors are currently participating, with food coming from both the pantry and local gardeners in a program organized by Community Solutions.
However clients receive the food, the need is still there, and villagers are encouraged to continue helping out if they can.
Villagers can donate the items at the bin in Tom’s Market, or during the monthly PORCH pickup, where nonperishable items are picked up from local front porches the first Monday of the month between 10 a.m. and noon. Those who are interested must arrange pickup ahead of time with organizer Libby Hammond, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another way to support the pantry, Hurwitz noted, is to send a check made out to the “Yellow Springs Community Food Pantry” to 202 S. Winter St., Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387.
The most popular, and thus needed, items, Hurwitz says, are those that can offer “dinner in a can,” such as canned beef stew or chicken pot pie.
“A meal in a can, where they don’t have to add anything, they just heat it up, that’s a very popular item that’s difficult to keep on the shelf,” she said.
Hurtwitz said that this year, with some people struggling to put food on the table, “the community has stepped up to the plate” with donations of food and money to the pantry.
“It’s a very generous community and people have been very generous,” Hurwitz. “Yellow Springs is a good place to have a pantry.”
Yellow Springs Schools adapt
Yellow Springs Schools is once again delivering meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. After trying a “grab and go” pickup option in the summer and at the start of the school year, the district is now delivering food to between 150 and 180 students in the Dayton area twice per week, the same arrangement as at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s the best thing we can do to help get the students meals,” said Yellow Springs High School athletic director Jeff Eyrich, on the meal delivery. Eyrich was recently given the additional title of “director of operations,” and put in charge of the meal delivery program.
When the district offered meal pickup at the school in June and July, only five to six families regularly showed up, according to Eyrich. Pickup was moved to the John Bryan Center for the month of August, but still only about 10 to 12 families came by. Pickup was just not convenient, Eyrich said.
“Unfortunately the majority of the students who need this service are unable to make it out because either their parents don’t have the transportation, or parents are working,” he said.
Still, Eyrich was grateful that the district committed to offer food throughout the summer during the pandemic, and that the Village helped by giving the district a break for a month.
“It was seamless,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the delivery service resumed, on Mondays and Wednesdays. Four meals prepared in the YSHS cafeteria are included in each delivery in order to cover the entire week. And in early September a dinner package was added to that delivery with support from the community food pantry.
At present, three bus routes and two van routes deliver across the Dayton area, as open enrollment brings students from far afield. Eyrich himself was driving a route when the News reached him by phone. He first went up to Enon, drove over to East Dayton, then hit Huber Heights, Xenia and finally Cedarville.
“It’s about a two-hour route for me,” he said.
School bus drivers do the rest of the driving, with help from coaches, an athletics site manager and substitute teachers. Eyrich also recently hired a “food delivery assistant” to help him. In the spring, teachers and teacher’s aides took on the task, but they are now either teaching virtually, or staffing the Safe Centers for Online Learning.
Other districts are taking a variety of approaches, including by offering multiple pickup locations around their community, according to Eyrich.
And while staffing the meal delivery program has been a challenge, it has been worth it, Eyrich reflected.
“It’s absolutely crazy. But we know our students are in need and we want to do the best we can,” he said.
And those receiving the food?
“They are very happy,” Eyrich said.
Agraria connects food, farmers
Three years ago, Community Solutions set up a system for those with SNAP food assistance benefits to purchase food at the Yellow Springs farmers market, often with additional “perks” for doing so.
This year that program met the needs of a growing number of people, according to Alex Klug, who runs the program for the nonprofit in addition to coordinating other local food efforts.
“It’s been really successful,” she said.
So far in 2020, 87 people have used their electronic benefit card to procure fresh, locally grown food at the market, up from 35 in 2019, Klug noted. Many have taken advantage of a program that offers a dollar-for-dollar match for food at the market, which extends their benefits even further.
At the same time, because the SNAP kiosk doubles as a location where anyone can use their credit card to buy tokens to use at farmer booths, the process is very discrete, she said.
The farmers market SNAP program is just one of Community Solutions’ efforts aimed at addressing local food insecurity. The group, which runs the Agraria farm west of town, also started the Generous Gardeners program, in which it asked local home gardeners to grow an extra row of food to donate to those in need. Financial donations to the program were used to purchase from local farmers.
“Some people drop off the abundance they have, and other people donate money,” Klug said.
Community Solutions then donated the produce to the Yellow Springs Senior Center, which regularly delivers food to about a dozen local seniors, and to a Springfield organization that operates deeply discounted farm stands in a food desert in an impoverished neighborhood. Through the first week of September, the nonprofit distributed 1,267 pounds of produce — most of it fresh — and more than half of it both fresh and grown within 20 miles of Yellow Springs.
Klug said the nonprofit got the idea after watching farmers around the country throw away food they couldn’t sell during the pandemic shutdowns, while others were going hungry.
“COVID really opened our eyes to the many faults in our system,” Klug said.
At the same time, some food relief efforts involve purchasing products from “big box stores,” many of whose workers are themselves on food assistance, Klug observed. Meanwhile, area farmers are in need of buyers for their products. This year, Community Solutions tried to connect those two needs.
“We are feeding the people who need it most in our community and giving those who are producing a viable opportunity to sell their food,” she said.
It’s part of a larger mission for the nonprofit to create more resilient food system models. Klug believes that Yellow Springs could serve as an example for how to blend food relief efforts with efforts to strengthen the local food system. Otherwise, food relief efforts will never solve the problem, she believes.
“If we want to eliminate hunger, we should be investing in those who are producing food,” she said. “We can be resilient together.”
*The writer is a board member of Community Solutions.