By Laura Putre
For the past five years, I’ve been a reliably imperfect member of a plucky church that serves a lot of poor people on Cleveland’s West Side. I’m consistently un-punctual at board meetings and have volunteered at the church’s twice-weekly community meal exactly twice. But I’ve been at the periphery enough to understand the enormous effort that goes into putting on the meal and biweekly produce pantry — the sweat equity, resourcefulness, physical endurance, and handwringing are worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
Frequent discussion topics have included: What to do with the leftover pantry produce — in summer there are piles of it — so it doesn’t attract rats. Should we dip into our treasury to rent a Dumpster? Call around to find an urban farm that might be interested in composting it? How to deal with the local shop owner who picks through leftover food and tries to resell it in his store? How do we handle the occasional scuffle that breaks out between guests at the meal?
In 2014, things were supposed to be looking up for the Ohio economy, but they weren’t looking up at my church. The already full-to-bursting meal crowd was growing and was more on edge. People were starting to get physical when they thought they’d been shortchanged or someone muscled in and got more than their share. Adults were discouraged from bringing children to the pantry. The city pushed the church to hire an off-duty police officer for security, because too many people were arriving early to get a prime spot in line and blocking the streets with their cars.
While these hungry people waited in line, the economic outlook in Ohio was “brightening” and economists were reporting job growth. Governor John Kasich — who believes that faith-based charity, not government, should relieve the ills of poverty — was apparently pleased with these proclamations. At the end of 2013 and 2014, for the first time since the recession started, he turned down millions of dollars of federal money for emergency food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits. This took away food from a swath of the population — adults not considered disabled, without dependents living with them — unless they worked 20 hours a week or were accepted and enrolled in a state-approved job training program.
But the good news from on high didn’t match the bad news in real life. I wondered whether the section of the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood where the church sits was just especially down and out. Maybe it was just the end-of-the-line for the bus of desperation on its cross-country tour. But earlier this winter, when I checked how food pantries in other locations, urban and suburban, were faring, I found more of the same: more food going out to more people, and still more unmet need.
My first stop on this exploration of poverty and hunger was the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, a tightly choreographed operation that employs 100 people and maintains a 14-truck fleet to deliver food to 266 hunger relief programs in six counties. In 2014 alone, Food Bank trucks traveled a total of 292,396 miles and made 27,565 stops for pickup and delivery. Through its mobile pantry program, part of a push to hand out more nutritious food, the Food Bank works with wholesalers and farmers to get truckloads of excess produce to people who can’t afford it or don’t have a grocery store in their vicinity. A health inspector from the Cleveland Department of Health visits the kitchen every day. A staff nutritionist plans balanced meals for 6,000 seniors and children daily, comes up with healthy seasonal recipes to share (like mashed cauliflower in fall replacing less-nutritious mashed potatoes), and teaches cooking classes to people who run hot meal programs.
In 2009 — the worst year of the Great Recession in Ohio, according to the Brookings Institution — the Food Bank delivered 29.1 million pounds of food. That should have been the zenith of food charity, if you go by economic outlook according to job growth and the decrease in the number of foreclosures. Instead, year over year after 2009, the volume of food distributed by the Food Bank has grown. Last year, it distributed 43 million pounds of food — 32 percent more than in 2009.
The story was similar at the Garden Valley Neighborhood House, the largest food pantry operation in Cleveland. Their numbers have grown year over year since 2010, when Jan Ridgeway, a retired community outreach/public affairs officer for the Cleveland Public Library who was volunteering her time at the pantry, rescued Garden Valley from the brink of closure.
In 2010 the pantry fed up to 1,800 people a month. Today, it feeds an average of 10,200 people per month. Ridgeway traded her Volkswagen Bug for a van so she can lug food from the Food Bank on her trips there. Ridgeway, or a friend, makes the trip “practically every day the Food Bank is open” to avoid a Food Bank delivery charge.
“A lot of benefits have been cut from the time we opened until now,” says Ridgeway, attempting to explain the increase in volume. “There definitely is a greater need now than ever before. We see a lot of people coming to us as a supplemental food source. They may be on welfare and it’s not enough.”
Ridgeway lists other reasons: someone might be working but it’s a part-time job or it’s at minimum wage or temporary work, or they were recently hired or just laid off because they were the last hired. “Even when the economy picked back up, a lot of people in this neighborhood continued to be laid off,” she says.
And then there are the increasingly strapped grandparents. Parents who lose their homes or jobs, or are incarcerated, often leave their children in the care of grandparents or great-grandparents. The Garden Valley neighborhood has the highest rate of kinship care in the city, and also the highest percentage of children, says Ridgeway.
The neighborhood house offers 45 programs, including construction training, GED tutoring, a 24-hour read-a-thon, and a furniture bank. But Ridgeway sees food as the first step in helping someone on the road to self-sufficiency. “If your stomach is growling, you aren’t going to care about a GED,” she says.
Ridgeway describes her approach as “very aggressive.” If the Food Bank has 2,000 pounds of about-to-expire meat, she’s there with her van and a U-Haul or a friend with a pickup truck, loading up. She had a group of conventioneers at the Medical Mart come by to volunteer and help pay utility bills. And she makes sure local politicians hear about the work going on. “There’s not enough money to do this work,” she says. Without outside support, “you’re just one person in the wilderness.”
“I’m not reserved in my comments,” she adds. “I have no hidden agenda. I am about changing the dynamic. Raising the quality of life of the people in the neighborhood.”
In suburban Parma, John Visnauskas is executive director of All Faiths Pantry, which started serving people 60 and over in 2006. Visnauskas says that demand has consistently grown since then, but “this year we just really blew up. In our first eight years, we delivered over one-third of a million pounds of food in over 20,000 deliveries. Which was pretty awesome, but this year  we distributed half a million pounds.” Adding monthly distributions of Food Bank produce at various sites in their 84-square-mile-area service area dramatically increased their numbers, Visnauskas says.
All Faiths’ pantry serves about 450 seniors. But just in the city of Parma alone, about 4,500 people age 55 and older meet the income requirements to qualify for food pantry delivery. “It doesn’t matter how much we do — we haven’t even scratched the surface of our demographic,” Visnauskas says.
Delivery is key to the program. “With seniors, you’re not going to go to a strange church and negotiate one of your rides, from a relative or the RTA, and then sit in a room with a bunch of other people waiting for food. They do that one time and they’d rather starve to death. But with us it’s ‘Hi, it’s John. We’re delivering groceries tomorrow, are you going to be home?’ We know the doorbell doesn’t work and the dog doesn’t bite. It’s much different than saying, ‘I’m telling you people, get in the line.’”
Visnauskas, who in the early 2000s worked as operations manager for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, has helped some area churches start their own food programs. “That’s what we really want to do,” he says. “Not become some giant institution. When somebody called me from the Lutheran Church in Chardon and said, ’I can bring 20 people for the afternoon,’ I said, ’Why don’t we start a program for you?’”
In another Cleveland suburb, Lakewood, Trinity Lutheran Church just had its largest community meal ever, with 150 people. “We have never served that many people in one sitting,” marvels the Rev. Paula Maeder Connor, the church’s pastor since 1990.
Pre-2011, Trinity volunteers served two meals a month. Now they serve four monthly, in addition to the biweekly pantry. Maeder Connor thinks there’s a need for a community meal somewhere in Lakewood every day of the month, partly to help with the overflow the city pantries are experiencing. Seven open spots on the calendar remain.
“The Cleveland meals, God bless ‘em, I think the folks there have to be stressed from doing this every day,” she says.
The food poverty numbers tell a different story than the job numbers. All told, 40 percent more people in Ohio were served by food banks in 2014 compared to 2010, says Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks (OAFB). In 2009, 30.9 percent of Ohioans had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level — the standard to qualify for food assistance. Now, 34.1 percent of the state’s population qualifies for food assistance (or in laymen’s terms, a handout). In Allen County, where Lima sits, it’s a whopping 40 percent.
In the summer of 2014, Policy Matters, a nonpartisan Ohio economic research institute, analyzed Ohio’s Job and Family Services numbers to create a list of the state’s 12 largest occupations. Only four provided a median wage above poverty for a family of three. Only one — registered nurse — provided a self-sufficiency wage.
“We think people are struggling and that to deny them food that is offered by the federal government works against people gaining traction in the labor market,” says Wendy Patton, Policy Matters’ senior project director.
From 2011-2013, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, 16 percent of Ohioans were food insecure, higher than the percentages in Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Illinois, and Michigan. Ohio was the only Rust Belt state with food insecurity significantly above the national average during those years.
Among all U.S. states, Ohio tied for first place with Mississippi, with 7.2 percent of its population assessed at “very low food insecurity” from 2011-2013. In the language of hunger policy, “food insecurity” means that getting food can be difficult — you have to rely on pantries or eat unhealthy food — but you have enough to eat. “Very low food insecurity” means, essentially, that at times you go hungry — you skip meals or lose weight because you don’t have a way to get enough food.
The self-sufficiency income — 200 percent of the poverty rate — for a family of three in Ohio is $39,500. That’s almost $20 an hour, working full-time. The minimum wage in Ohio, when it went up 15 cents in January, is $8.10.
“Ohio’s economy has radically changed, and we are now moving in the wrong direction,” says Hamler-Fugitt. “I keep saying to policy makers, ‘You don’t understand that the jobs you talk about coming into the state will not provide a basic self-sufficiency standard for individuals and working families.’ There are literally not enough hours in the day for folks to be able to work all of these low-wage jobs. It’s heartbreaking.”
Since the state turned down federal funding in 2014, childless adults — including adults who may be caring for parents or have children that are not in their custody — now only receive food stamps for three months in three years total, unless they enroll in a work program. But state funding for work programs hasn’t increased with the cuts in emergency food funding, or with the growing numbers of people in need.
“We’re seeing these people more frequently because they have no other means to feed themselves,” says Hamler-Fugitt. “Some of them are coming to food pantries, but they’re primarily soup kitchen or hot meal clients.”
The OAFB did a study of 3,000 adults in Franklin County that fall into the able-bodied category. “It’s probably a pretty good representative sampling of the whole state of Ohio,” says Hamler-Fugitt.
A third had either a mental or physical disability but were not receiving disability benefits. Nearly 25 percent had children who were not in their custody. Thirteen percent were caregivers for parents, friends, and relatives. Thirty-nine percent had no high school diploma or GED. Thirty-four percent had felony convictions.
State-approved work programs can pick and choose their enrollees; a lot of these people just won’t qualify, says Hamler-Fugitt. Or if they do make it in and start applying for jobs, some are held up by the fact that they have to pay for their own FBI background check at $75 a pop. “The onus is on the applicant,” she says. “Is this the New World Order? I just call it ‘The Race to the Bottom.’ ”
When they do get hired, they generally aren’t working enough: The average length of employment for the subjects in the Franklin County study was only 11.3 weeks, working on average 29 ½ hours per week.
“If you know anything about the employment system, they’re getting jobs, but they’re being laid off before they hit that 20-week threshold” to qualify for unemployment benefits, says Hamler-Fugitt.
“In this new era of work, it’s not getting hired by an employer,” she adds. “It’s getting hired through a temporary service that has a contract with employers. By the very nature of those contracts, that temporary service is making 30 percent of every employee that they place. It’s indentured servitude, is what it is. These workers get counted in the employment numbers, but generally are terminated before they hit 20 weeks.”
In Cuyahoga County alone, an estimated 29,000 food stamp recipients have been disqualified from receiving emergency food stamps since January 2014, according to numbers from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. Statewide, it was 134,000. Combine that with an across-the-board cut in food stamps that reduced a family of three’s benefit by $29 a month, and a shift in food stamp payments from the 1st to the 20th of the month that has messed up the routine of seniors who share rides to the grocery store, and food stamp benefits are down $265 million a year in Ohio.
I wanted to ask Kasich why, for the most part, he turned down the federal funds. His press secretary, Rob Nichols, did not answer my requests for an interview. “The governor believes in a work requirement,” Nichols told the Columbus Dispatch in Sept. 2013, when the state first turned down the money. “When the economy is bad and people are hurting, the [emergency food stamps] can be helpful. Now, fortunately, Ohio’s economy is improving.”
Conservative southern states all the way to Texas accepted the federal funds for 2014, as did all of Ohio’s neighboring states. Colorado and Wisconsin did not accept the funds for all of their counties, according to Patton, but did increase funding for employment and training services — something Ohio did not do.
In Ohio, turning down those funds meant a loss of 195 million meals, says Hamler-Fugitt. To serve that many extra meals, the state’s food bank network would have to more than double its distribution.
“It didn’t happen. It can’t happen. Nobody wrote the food banks a check for $265 million to make up for these lost meals,” she says.
In order to serve more people, pantries are “lightening the bag” or cutting down on the number of times clients can visit the pantry in a month, Hamler-Fugitt adds. The volunteers are also overwhelmed. “They are managing chaos. ‘They’re seeing more people more frequently needing assistance.”
Handling the crowds, she says, can be “a scary thing. It’s almost a panic that sets in. If the agency is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., people start showing up in the early morning hours when it’s still dark, because they’re afraid if they don’t get into the line, the agency is going to run out of food.
“It is a recipe for disaster. I worry about the safety of our faithful volunteers.”
Meanwhile, the volunteers forge on, coming up with endlessly creative ways to get food into the mouths of the increasingly restless third of the population that doesn’t get paid enough to make ends meet.
“We don’t follow rules very well,” says Ridgeway. “We’re sort of a renegade group. The [Greater Cleveland] Hunger Network says ‘don’t take food to people’s cars.’ We take food to people’s cars. Or we will walk people’s food out to the sidewalk. If you have a cart we’ll load that cart for you, or load your trunk. We’re only open three hours, and we feed 120 to 130 families in one day. If we didn’t [take the food to the people], we wouldn’t be able to get it done.”
In November, Trinity Lutheran started a free (or, if you can, pay-what-you-can) Saturday morning yoga class to serve as a diversion for its queue of food bank clients. On the day I visited, the adults were reluctant to participate but the kids in the room enthusiastically joined in, glad to have something to do besides sit on folding chairs in the church auditorium with the somber, bundled-up grown-ups waiting for their numbers to be called. The teacher, a mom of four who lives in a neighboring apartment house, got an age-appropriate banter going. “Make sure that your feet are flexed so your little toesies are pointing out toward the ceiling.”
Back in the auditorium, a trio of women talked about how you can use eggs past their expiration date until they float (who knew?), or you can just freeze them if they’re still good and use them later. One had used up her emergency food benefits and didn’t have enough work to qualify for food stamps. The other two used the pantry to stretch their SNAP benefits, which top out for a qualifying single person at $180 a month (neither received that much). The three met at the food pantry, realized they live near each other, and formed a little sorority of sorts. One drives the group to the different food pantries in Lakewood, another brings the bags.
I was struck by their resourcefulness. I wonder about the effectiveness of the job training programs if these women aren’t gainfully employed.
Maeder Connor and the volunteer pantry coordinator, Trish LaFlore, who works 20 hours a week, have learned how to interpret the Food Bank grocery list to get the most food for the least amount of money. They’ve teamed up with Lakewood Earth and Food Community, a community gardening group, to serve vegetarian meals. And they’ve schooled themselves in obscure knowledge: like where to recycle Styrofoam and how much leeway they have on canned goods past their expiration date. (Answer: A couple of years. “They might not taste as good, but they still have the nutrition value,” Maeder Connor says. They leave them out for people to take if they want them, but don’t include them in the food pantry bags.)
Each community meal costs Trinity upwards of $1,000, for the utilities, the food (Greater Cleveland Food Bank charges its members for many items), and the wear and tear on the building. At my church, it’s less than that but still adds up to $25,000 to $30,000 a year, about 15 percent of the church’s total budget.
Pastors are paid a pastor’s salary, but otherwise, these programs are run on the backs of volunteers. The governor, in relying on faith-based goodwill to feed everyone, is asking a lot of these volunteers, who in turn are helping hard-working people forced to ask for a handout at the end of a week’s labor.
Who of our leadership is asking anywhere near as much of Wal-Mart, or the temp agencies, or the home health aide companies who pay their workers 10 bucks an hour or less?
New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a January 15 column arguing that Gov. Kasich is the Republican most deserving of a shot at the presidential nomination, wrote that Kasich’s mantra is: “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you about what you did about keeping government small, but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
When Kasich visited Garden Valley Neighborhood House last year, Jan Ridgeway essentially told Kasich that St. Peter might not be giving him a pass. The day he came, the line for the food pantry stretched a block and a half. “He was surprised to see how long it was,” says Ridgeway. “I shared with him that we have a serious issue our community. He reminded me that he wants to make sure there’s enough state funding for the poor. I said, ‘Currently it is not enough.’” In January, she started a letter asking him, among other things, to increase food stamp benefits. In early February, the letter wasn’t finished yet.
“We have had so many problems over the last couple of weeks that were more immediate,” she told me in an email explaining why she hadn’t completed the letter. “Broken and irreparable furnace (have kept pantry open despite cold temps). Four burst water pipes and frozen and burst hot water heater.”
In addition to her back-of-the-house duties, Ridgeway is getting ready to launch Garden Valley Neighborhood House’s next fundraising campaign. The theme is “What About Us?”
Laura Putre is a senior writer at Belt.
Photos by Bob Perkoski
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