Climate, pandemic conspire against hungry Ohioans

By: - December 19, 2022 5:00 am

Feeding America and Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank host Hungry to Help Lesson Plan for students at an Ohio elementary school in Fairlawn, Ohio. (Photo by Duane Prokop/Getty Images for Feeding America)

In addition to overseas wars and continuing supply-chain disruptions, diseases and climate-driven storms are making it hard to feed the hungriest Ohioans, Ohio’s top food bank official said Friday.

And that’s even as continuing inflation is creating ever more of them, she said.

“We’re just not seeing a return to normal at all,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. 

Throughout the pandemic, Ohio’s food banks have seen record demand. Now, with costs of essentials like food and utilities continuing to increase, things are only getting worse. 

“We thought we were at the high-water mark for demand,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “We’re way past that.”

She said that in the quarter ending Sept. 30, Ohio’s overstretched food banks saw 50% more children than they had in the same quarter of an unusually busy 2021. They also saw 31% more seniors, she said.

“Once people start getting these high heating costs, this will continue,” she said. “Seniors are just outliving their resources.”

In addition, Putin’s war in Ukraine continues to keep grain and other agricultural products off the market and while gas prices are coming down, prices for the fuel mostly used to transport food — diesel — remain high. All those factors increase food prices at the same time that food banks are having to buy more because USDA food donations have been cut substantially.

To help with those purchases, Gov. Mike DeWine in October announced that food banks would get $15 million in unexpended federal coronavirus funds — money that Hamler-Fugitt said is going to buy protein-rich food like beef, ham, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Last week, the legislature announced another $25 million for the food banks, which Hamler-Fugitt said would be evenly split between proteins and plant-based foods.

But as the food suppliers of last result scramble to meet demand, mother nature seems to be conspiring against them.

“Most of our vegetable production this time of year shifts to the South and the West Coast,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

But things are not well in those regions.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, it ruined an estimated 40% to 50% of the citrus crop and devastated the state’s bee colonies. California and Texas, both major producers and fruits and vegetables, continue to be gripped by drought. And a rash of late-season tornadoes are destroying crops in the Southeast.

In addition, the coronavirus isn’t the only disease increasing food costs. An avian flu outbreak has impacted more than 44 million birds, trebled egg prices and also inflated the cost of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys.

All of which adds to the burden shouldered by foodbanks. Hamler-Fugitt acknowledged that she’s been appealing for help since the start of the pandemic and said she understands that covid fatigue set in long ago. But she said the number of hungry Ohioans is still growing.

“We’re just bracing and hoping that something else doesn’t happen,” she said.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.