Food insecurity in Ohio as bad as ever
Two children help their mother pick up food from the Sugartree Ministry food bank in Wilmington, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Back in 2016, I conducted a policy analysis on food insecurity in Ohio.
I was drawn to this question because I saw a report from the Center for American Progress rating states on a variety of different indicators. Ohio, as it still tends to do, fell near the middle of the pack on nearly every indicator. The exception was food insecurity.
In my analysis, which I eventually published with Innovation Ohio, I looked at a few different interventions to reduce food insecurity, focusing on cost effectiveness. I settled on a program called SNAP-Ed – a nutritional financial literacy program that has been shown to have significant results at reducing food insecurity in treatment populations and has been verified by randomized controlled trials.
A lot has changed since that 2016 analysis but one thing has remained the same — food insecurity is still a significant problem in Ohio.
The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for families struggling with food insecurity in Ohio. On the front end, typical patterns of food consumption were upended by the drastic economic effects of large-scale economic shutdowns across the world. This led to more of a need for food bank services across the state and increased usage significantly.
The abatement of the pandemic did not lead to a corresponding abatement in food insecurity. This is because the supply chain and labor market changes accompanying the drawdown of the pandemic led to rapid increases in prices across markets. Food markets were hit disproportionately, with many food staples rising in price by double digits on a yearly basis.
This means food banks have continued to strain even after pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
We see this reality reflected in a recent survey by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, which found that over two-thirds of food bank clients had to choose between paying for food and paying for transportation, gas, or utilities and over half had to choose between paying for food or health care or housing.
Food banks have been our plug-and-chug answer to poverty in the United States. As we’ve slowly reduced cash payments, access to benefits like SNAP (formerly known as “food stamps”), and put work requirements on benefits like government-supplied health insurance, a refrain from policymakers has been “let them have food banks.” While giving people food benefits such as SNAP to shop in grocery stores is the more straightforward policy approach, food banks appeal to a sense of charity among policymakers.
But food banks are only as useful as they are resourced. If food banks are to take the place of a more robust safety net as envisioned during the War on Poverty or that exists in most other developed countries, the state needs to sufficiently resource them so they can provide food for clients.
A problem with the food bank model is that if demand for services outstrips supply, the only adjustment they can make is increase wait times. This is because the limit on food bank services does not only come from lack of food, but also from labor to distribute the food. So low-income people have time they could spend looking for work, developing skills, or caring for family members waiting in line so they can eat. This is not a productive use of time.
In an ideal world, we have a robust safety net that provides income support for people who fall into poverty and that integrates people into society so poverty does not persist across the generations. In absence of this, sufficient funding for food banks is the bare minimum we could provide to give people a chance to escape poverty.
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