Kent State Community Engaged Learning Director Amanda Woodyard talks with Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank CEO Dan Flowers while Kent State volunteers break down boxes and carry groceries to cars during the food distribution at Dix Stadium on Wednesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Lines of cars flock to Dix Stadium for food assistance
Pantries are still serving groceries nearly a year into the pandemic, and first-time recipients are still seeking help
A double line of cars waiting for donated groceries at Kent State’s Dix Stadium spilled onto Summit Street on Wednesday, a mix of students, formerly high-income earners and many more who have dealt with food insecurity even before the pandemic.
Organizers said the need was so great that the university and the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank will continue hosting distributions at Dix Stadium on the third Wednesday of each month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. through June.
The distribution in the stadium parking lot, hosted by Kent State volunteers in partnership with the food bank, offered a safety net of food and household essentials to residents of Portage County and surrounding areas.
Kent resident Sheri Meacham eased her car to a stop aside the dwindling pile of food while snow-covered volunteers packed groceries into her trunk. It was her first time receiving food at a distribution like this. She lost her six-figure salary at Airgas in April when the pandemic forced a wave of budget cuts and layoffs. With her unemployment benefits ending this week and no prospects after a months-long job search, her family’s future remains uncertain, she said.
“My unemployment pays a quarter of my bills,” she said. “So I cashed out my entire retirement, and it’s gone. In nine months, I have spent all my retirement money. And I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family or pay the mortgage.”
Meacham said she could find a low-level job somewhere, but the pay wouldn’t cover her bills. Finding employment at the same level she had prior to the pandemic has been impossible.
“My mortgage is on hold for six months,” she said. “I have no idea, when this ends, how to recoup all of this money that I’m not paying right now. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Kent State Community Engaged Learning Director Amanda Woodyard said she’s seen the need for food increase tremendously since the beginning of the pandemic. While Kent State shut down over the summer, its food pantries remained open. Trader Joe’s donates overstock food to the pantries for now, but the university is working to affiliate itself with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
Between March and August, Kent State’s pantries supplied over 43,000 pounds of food, Woodyard said, compared with 32,000 pounds throughout all of 2019.
“We would see people lining up an hour early, and there’d be lines around the building for our food pantry over the summer,” she said. “The stories of people who have never had to use resources like this in the past. Students whose families have been impacted, and therefore, second hand, they’re impacted by needing food resources.”
Kent State student Joshua Bellamy, a recipient at the distribution, said he has begun and lost two jobs since the pandemic began.
“It’s been peaks and valleys,” he said. “You’ve got your times where you’re financially OK. You’ve got your times where it’s like, you know, you’re not financially OK. This is one of those times where it’s a holiday season, trying to save money, you’re trying to make ends meet right now.”
Bellamy hadn’t needed these kinds of resources before the pandemic, but as it lingered through the summer, he became more comfortable accepting help. Addressing the economic strain the pandemic has thrust so many people into requires transparency, he said. Through openly sharing experiences, people can help one another access resources they need.
Justin Hilton, a community outreach administrator at Kent State, said this increased need has opened conversations about food insecurity both pre-existing and pandemic-induced.
“In a situation like this, when those normal outlets to getting access to food and food services are hindered or strained, then the optics of the demand increase,” he said. “So it seems like perhaps there may be a lot more insecurity than before, and granted, there probably is, but it still shines a light on the need even before pandemic, before our current times, about the significance of food insecurity.”
Hilton showed up Wednesday as a volunteer, he said. He’s known Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank CEO Dan Flowers for more than 10 years, so when he saw him breaking down used boxes, he greeted him with a hug.
Flowers said the need in Northeast Ohio has been so great that the food bank had to use donations and grant funds to purchase food this year to accommodate it rather than relying on donations from grocery companies as it normally does. When grocery stores faced shortages back in March, food bank orders that would normally take one or two weeks were delayed up to 10 weeks, he said. But with so much community support and monetary donations, the food bank has embraced purchasing food as a way to diversify its products.
The Ohio National Guard has even pitched in troops and trucks to make over 800 food deliveries to distribution events for the food bank since March.
“I look at it two ways,” Flowers said. “When we distribute food like this, we alleviate food insecurity so that people have, you know, they got food. They have food to eat. The second thing that it does is that it fights poverty. Because today, each one of these boxes, they might have $20 worth of groceries. But that’s $20 that a lot of these folks don’t have, if you think about it. That’s money that they are able to spend on their heating bill, to buy their kids shoes. I kind of look at it on both levels. We’re fighting hunger and poverty at the same time.”
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