Progress in fight against hunger, but challenges remain

On a holiday when people overeat and host elaborate feasts, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many local families will go to bed hungry tonight.

Ohio is one of the most food insecure states in the nation, according to a new federal report, and Dayton continues to rank among the worst U.S. cities for food hardship.

Some local agencies and charitable groups contend that the community can win the battle against hunger by taking collective action.

Planned interventions include bringing a grocery store to a well-known food desert and connecting needy families to feeding programs and government resources.

“We can do this — we turned this around 25 years ago and we can do it again,” said U.S. Ambassador Tony Hall, who earlier this year launched the Hall Hunger Initiative, which focuses on ending hunger and food insecurity.”

Empty stomachs

In Ohio, about 16.1 percent of households have low or very low food security, according to survey data published in a September report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Only five other states have higher rates of food insecurity: Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Kentucky.

Food insecurity refers to a household’s struggles to access adequate food because of a lack of money or other resources, according to the USDA.

Conditions in Dayton have been especially grim.

The Gem City ranked 2nd in the nation in 2014-15 for households with children with reported “food hardship,” according to a Food Research & Action Center report released in June.

“Quite frankly, more than half of Montgomery County’s low-income population has low access to a full-service grocery store,” said Jeffrey Cooper, Montgomery County health commissioner.

Hunger and food instability can lead to birth complications and poor concentration, academic performance and work quality, he said.

Inadequate food consumption can have harmful effects on development, learning, productivity and a person’s social life.

What’s being done

But a diverse group of organizations that serve the poor and needy are fighting hunger on a variety of fronts.

Some programs and initiatives that seek to improve food access and healthy eating were highlighted earlier this month at the sixth annual Montgomery County Food Summit.

Homefull helped expand food access this year by assisting nearly 30 vendors at the 2nd Street Market downtown accept electronic food stamp benefits, said Jimmy Ryan, Homefull’s market manager, at the summit.

Homefull, which is a nonprofit that serves the homeless, has also purchased a bicycle it will use to deliver fresh produce directly to downtown businesses, likely starting in the spring, he said.

Homefull runs the Market at Wright Stop Plaza, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last month. The stand at the Greater Dayton RTA downtown hub sells fresh fruits and produce to bus riders, many of whom live in food deserts where they lack access to healthy food choices.

Much of northwest Dayton is considered a food desert, but a local organization is working to bring a full-service cooperative grocery store to the lower Salem Avenue corridor.

The store would be about 15,000 to 20,000 square feet, which is about the size of Dorothy Lane Market in Oakwood, said Matt Currie, a local attorney and president of the Greater Dayton Union Coop Initiative, which is behind the project.

Local governments and charitable groups have pitched in funding to market the project and develop a blueprint for how the co-op will operate.

“We think that by the end of the month we’ll have a business plan ready,” Currie said.

Local stakeholders also have helped craft a framework that maps out holistic, collaborative and systemic solutions to hunger, and the community has the resources, partnerships and strategies needed to bring this problem under control within about a decade, said Hall, the former congressman.

Efforts are underway to raise awareness and increase enrollment in existing anti-hunger and anti-poverty government programs, such as food stamp assistance and the free and reduced school lunch program, Hall said.

Other local initiatives seek to expand food access and teach vulnerable residents about meal planning, budgeting and how to properly grow, prepare, cook, store and shop for food, advocates said.

Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley this year hosted classes to educate people about how to save money, build and use credit, lower their grocery bills and find and use discounted prescription programs. It also held cooking demonstrations and a session focused on managing holiday stress.

In March, the agency will host a series of classes about making healthy food choices and managing a household’s food budget.

“They do recipes, they do sampling, they talk about how to make healthy decisions,” said Andrea Tromley Skrlac, a spokewsoman with Catholic Social Services.

The relationship to empty wallets

But hunger is a complex issue that does not go away, and the extra events, dinners and bagged lunches provided during the holiday months offer short-lived relief, said Melodie Bennett, executive director with the House of Bread.

“If a person is in a situation where they are hungry today, they will be hungry again tomorrow unless something in their life improves,” she said.

The community needs to remove barriers that prevent people from climbing out of poverty by improving access to jobs, transportation, education and child care, officials said.

The local economy has improved, which helps curb hunger, but economic conditions are not all hunky-dory, according to hunger-relief agencies .

In 2014, about 127,630 people in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties were food insecure, which was down about 2 percent from the prior year, according to the most recent survey data from Feeding America.

“We’re starting to see some of what we call the ‘hunger index factors’ beginning to improve,” said Michelle Riley, CEO of the Foodbank Inc., which last fiscal year distributed more than 9.8 million pounds of food to 106 member agencies. “Do I think the numbers will look better for 2015 and 2016? Yes, I do.”

Still, too many residents are unemployed, underemployed or encounter life events — such as a medical bill or divorce — that throws their finances into disarray, she said.

Locally, unemployment has dropped precipitously since the recession to some of the lowest levels in decades.

But median household income in the region is down, and poverty rates have risen. Some of the drop in unemployment is caused by people leaving the workforce.

Last year, 1,953 of the families served by the food pantry operated by Catholic Social Services (33 percent of the total) were first-time visitors, which suggests that many residents are newly poor or recently encountered financial hardship.

The Choice Food Pantry, which is one of the county’s busiest pantries, on average serves about 40 to 125 families per day, depending on whether it is early or late in the month, said Laura Roesch, CEO of the agency.

The number of clients who visit the pantry for emergency food assistance is still up about 40 percent since 2008, she said, adding that Catholic Social Services also conducts assessments and interviews visitors to connect them with other resources, such as job training and housing programs.

“We’re looking forward to things improving for all the people in our community, and until then, we’ll be here to help fill those needs,” Roesch said.

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