The Dayton region has been losing the fight against hunger, but a new initiative will develop a broad, deliberate and comprehensive plan to attack the problem at its roots, advocates said.
United Way of the Greater Dayton Area and U.S. Ambassador Tony Hall on Tuesday announced they have joined together to start working toward a plan to reduce and hopefully eliminate hunger in the Dayton community, which ranks among the worst in the nation for food insecurity.
The Food Research and Action Center released a report in April 2015 saying the Dayton metro area ranked ninth in the nation for food hardship.
Many local agencies and organizations feed people and families who struggle to put food on the table.
But this new initiative represents the first time local stakeholders will come together to wage a coordinated and holistic campaign to put an end to hunger , which will focus heavily on addressing underlying causes, said Hall, the former congressman of 23 years who represented Dayton.
“We’re here because hunger is hidden and we have to bring it out,” Hall said.
On Tuesday, the Hall Hunger Initiative and United Way unveiled plans to convene an advisory committee to study hunger in the community.
The task force will bring together representatives of public and private organizations who will identify those people struggling with food insecurity and determine what services they need to gain reliable access to adequate and nutritious food, Hall said.
Local stakeholders, including Montgomery County and nonprofit groups, will collaborate in ways they never have before to come up with a comprehensive set of strategies to address this public health crisis, officials said.
“Look, this is a developing-nation problem in a very developed community,” said Tom Maultsby, president and CEO of the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area. “We should not have hunger to the extent we do.”
Food insecurity tends to be a symptom of circumstances, such as poverty, household instability, unemployment and living in areas without grocery stores.
Maultsby said the community must address the principal problems causing hunger through enhanced and more effective human services programs.
He said malnutrition can cause poor health, which can lead to significant medical problems and bills.
Maultsby said it is important to educate the community about what to eat and what to avoid.
“There are a lot of things we have to fix,” he said. “We are talking about systemic change and problems that have been generational.”
United Way and Montgomery County are working together on a collective impact model for coordinating and delivering health and human services.
The advisory committee should produce a community plan in about six months to a year from now, Hall said. He expects implementing that plan and reaching its goals will take years.
Hall said some of the focus undoubtedly will be on education, advocacy and resource alignment.
For example, he said, some local residents who are eligible and would benefit from federal food assistance are not enrolled in the program.
Hall said the region likely has the resources to solve hunger, but it needs a comprehensive and well-thought out plan to serve as a guide.
He also said eliminating hunger must become a priority for elected leaders who seem unaware of the depth of the problem.
“Our politicians need to care about this, but they don’t know about this issue,” Hall said. “So I need to talk to them about it.”
The hunger problem is immense and growing, and the more than 100 local food pantries and soup kitchens are struggling to keep up with the demand, Hall said.
Good Neighbor House, a nonprofit at 627 E. First St. in Dayton, served 27,562 people at its food pantry in 2015, a 61 percent increase from 2014, said Marcia Ehlers, the group’s assistant director of human services and outreach.
Last year, the organization also saw large increases in utilization of its programs that distribute clothing and household items.
Michelle Shafer, a volunteer at Good Neighbor House, used to be a client of the pantry.
Shafer became sick and had to quit her career in cosmetology after 26 years. Her husband also suffered from health issues.
Shafer said she was embarrassed to visit a food pantry, but they made her feel comfortable and welcome.
“I was just amazed how you guys help so many people,” she said, fighting back tears.