Most people know how a growling stomach feels after a skipped breakfast or missed lunch.
Many are now discovering for the first time what real hunger is like, asking Lorain County food banks for help. And if you think you know what the average person in crisis looks like, think again — and check a mirror.
“Do you know where your next meal is coming from and where you’re going to get it? If the answer is no, then you’re experiencing food insecurity.” said Hannah Rosenberg, food programs coordinator for Oberlin Community Services, which distributed 200 Thanksgiving meals last year for people in the southern half of the county.
It’s an experience all too common for 15.6 million of Americans who do not know when their next meal is coming, according to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The issue is a local one. In Lorain County, 14.5 percent of people are food insecure. As the USDA defines it, they come from households that are “uncertain of having or are unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they have insufficient money or other resources for food.”
During the holidays, many people gather to eat a bounty of foods between Thanksgiving, Christmas work parties, and family New Year’s potlucks.
Many around here do not have a feeling of food abundance, and community food banks are quickly stocking their shelves for the many newcomers they expect.
Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio, working with close to 68 partner charities, helps feed an average of 70,000 people each month, all year long.
But director of external affairs Susan Bartosch notices a spike around the holidays when food becomes the center of conversation and events.
“In the last couple years, it’s gone down just a tick,” Bartosch said. “We’re moving the dial. But that still means that there are thousands of people out there that still don’t have food. Until it’s down to zero, we have work to do.”
The Great Recession that started in 2008 spiked food insecurity to 16 percent, and the county is still recovering. For example, Rosenberg has only seen a steady increase the past decade and said food insecurity is 21 percent higher in Oberlin than the county average, with 53 percent of children eligible to receive free- and reduced-priced lunches.
Local pantries make most purchases from Second Harvest. Monetary donations as low as $5 help feed families — our readers in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington among them — for weeks. That amount provides 25 meals.
But giving isn’t always consistent. Well-Help in Wellington has been low on donations, coordinator Bernie Raab said; in the last few months, there have been two to seven new families per month that need help with food and donations haven’t been enough to offset the increase.
Oberlin Community Services and First United Methodist Church are also on a tight budget.
“If we get enough in donations and grants, we are able to get by, but if any of those slip, our shelves are bare,” Rosenberg said.
There is a high demand for holiday food programming, with kids home from school and a pressure to buy gifts, Rosenberg said. People call months in advance and rush to register once sign-ups open.
Nita Swiers, food chairman of First United Methodist Church in Amherst, sees a similar increase around the holidays. As soon as the heating bill arrives, she said more families clamor to use the church’s food pantry.
“It’s hard to tell what causes it. I just know it happens every year,” she said. “I use the heating bill as an excuse but it could be kids going back to school that chews into the household budget.”
Even though food banks are finding more hungry mouths, many individuals and families in Lorain County face a never-ending treadmill of tough decisions. Do they use their income — if they have one — to pay the electricity bill or stock the cupboards? Do they pay for a hospital visit or put dinner on the table?
Bartosch said 51 percent of the people who get food from Second Harvest soup kitchens and pantries have at least one employed person in their household. People in suits and work attire are who she sees most regularly, which she said “blows a really big myth.”
Eighty percent of people who visit soup kitchens and pantries only access them once or twice a year at most. “We are the safety net,” she said.
Families that experience a budget blow — a lofty medical bill, a job loss, or a car breakdown — often are embarrassed to need help.
“There is this misconception that emergency food services create dependency,” Rosenberg said. “But the majority of our clients are not coming over and over for decades and decades. They are coming in moments of crisis.”
When people struggle with food insecurity, it’s rarely the only problem they face. That’s why Second Harvest is working with health care organizations in hopes that meeting a number of needs will help people recover from their darkest hours.
Bartosch said many people who are food insecure have quite a few health-related issues. Fifty percent of people face diabetes and high blood pressure, 27 percent lack health insurance, including Medicare, and 60 percent have lingering medical bills.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.