Op-ed: The Hope Machine moved 27,000 pounds of food. Then it died.

Image of two people standing in front of a green schoolbus with the words Food Pantry on the side
Jason and Rena Davis changed this vehicle from a daycare bus to the "Hope Machine." They made it into a food pantry and drive it to their distribution areas. Asha Blake/The Portager.

By Jason and Rena Davis

Like many of you, in the late fall and early winter of 2020, we watched and waited as life came to a standstill and uncertainty became the new norm. We watched the news and wondered how bad it was going to get, how many lives would be lost to or forever changed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We had seen the long lines of folks waiting for boxes of groceries in other states on television and knew that the need must be here in our own community. We had to do something about it. It was in this moment that Rural Relief Mobile Food Pantry was born.

Rooted in Atwater, Charlestown and Rootstown, we decided to focus our efforts on the rural parts of our county. Hunger in these areas often goes unnoticed and resources are lacking or difficult to access, so we decided to take the food where it’s needed in our little green bus — the Hope Machine. Our first grocery distribution was on April 29 in Deerfield. Since then, the Hope Machine has made 33 visits to rural communities transporting 27,000 pounds of food to 584 households.

We’re often asked if there really is a need for what we do — are there that many people who really need what we offer? The answer is yes. There’s the single parent living paycheck to paycheck struggling to afford enough food to feed several children. There are the grandparents all of a sudden having to fulfill the provider role on a fixed income. There are the seniors with medical expenses who have to choose between food and medicine or paying for a medical procedure. There’s the widow who just lost the love of their life, who had little or no pension. There are those in between jobs who just need a little help to feed their families.

These are hardworking, proud people. We can see how difficult it is for them to be seeking help. Most of us would struggle with that. We offer them a safe place, free from judgment. We offer them kindness, compassion and someone to share their story with. We’ve gotten to know many of those we see. We’ve been touched by their struggles and their gratitude. The children affect us the most. Seeing them light up over something as simple as a box of fruit snacks or cookies really puts things in perspective for us — opens our eyes to how much many of us truly take for granted.

The Hope Machine has had many visitors. Not all of them drive up in a car and pop their trunk. Some walk. Some ride a bicycle or borrow one. Some pull up on riding lawn mowers. Several pick up for those who are unable to make it out due to health or transportation reasons. All are treated with the same respect and dignity.

When we started this journey, we weren’t certain that it would be possible with just the two of us and the limited resources that we had. We took a leap of faith in our community to support our efforts to help our neighbors in need. That faith has been affirmed. Our community (YOUR community) is full of kind, giving people. People who do care for one another. People who aren’t jaded by the intolerance and vitriol that bombards many of us through social media and cable news. We have seen it in township officials allowing us to use public space for our distributions. We have seen it in folks driving up to our distributions to give us donations. We have seen it through the organizations and businesses that have supported us by holding drives to collect items for us to pass out. We have seen it in small ways and in big ways, a bag of groceries in our donation box and the Hope Machine packed full of snacks for the kids at Waterloo Elementary School. We are humbled by the support that we have received and grateful for the community we live in.

It’s winter again and Covid-19 doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. The grants that we enjoyed from the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank are set to expire — food and deliveries will no longer be free of charge. Food banks across the country are feeling the pressures of rising food costs and supply chain issues. Many are being forced to cut back on resources shared with their community partners. We have been able to keep our expenses low through that partnership and our mobile model. Unfortunately, both have changed. The Hope Machine is 30 years old and no longer able to withstand the demands of being a mobile food pantry without significant repairs.

In order for us to continue helping our neighbors in need, we need your support. We need you to affirm that our community cares, that there is hope for those in need. There is hope for the single mom or dad, the grandparents, the senior, the widow and those who are in between jobs. We need you to help us rejuvenate the Hope Machine so that we can continue to make regular visits to the unnoticed, forgotten parts of our county where people can walk up, ride a bicycle or lawnmower, or pop the trunk for a little help. We need your help to continue sharing the kindness and compassion that makes our county a great place to live. Thank you.

Editor’s note: Anyone can donate to the Rural Relief Mobile Food Pantry here: www.rrmfp.org

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