Volunteers Nancy Littlepage and Larry Davis fill food orders at Chopin Hall in Findlay. The directors of local food pantries urge those who are hungry not to be reluctant to seek help. That’s why their agencies exist, they say, and if the food is not given away, it will go to waste. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By SARA ARTHURS

Staff Writer

If you’re hungry but reluctant to reach out for help, the CEO of the West Ohio Food Bank wants you to know that there is food available — and that helping those in need is exactly why her organization exists.

Linda Hamilton has met a lot of people who “don’t want to ask for help.” One woman, for instance, said she was only eating one meal a day. Because of health problems, she had to have the air conditioning on in the summer. “She had to choose not to eat as much,” which leads to more health problems. But she wasn’t getting food assistance.

“That’s what we are here for,” Hamilton said.

Ron Rooker, executive director of Chopin Hall in Findlay, said he recently spoke with a young woman who needed help with food but admitted “the roadblock was the embarrassment.” He knows there are people out there who could use help, but aren’t coming to the food pantry because of pride or embarrassment.

In this case, the young woman did get registered with Chopin Hall. “And we’re helping her,” Rooker said.

To qualify to get food from Chopin Hall, you must be a Hancock County resident and meet certain income requirements.

Rooker said the organization doesn’t ask many other questions, so they don’t necessarily know why people are coming in. They do see some individuals with disabilities. And there are people he sees working in the community, so he knows many recipients are indeed employed.

Rooker said at one point, the agency was serving more grandparents raising their grandchildren, but that’s no longer on the rise the way it once was.

Hamilton said people may be in line for food because they are on disability or have extra mouths to feed. One client told her she only had $100 each month to purchase food for her family including four children, after having been disabled from a stroke and also dealing with car trouble. Hamilton said she hears stories like this all the time.

She said children and seniors are among those most affected by hunger.

In some parts of the region, there aren’t grocery stores, and transportation can be a challenge, Hamilton said.

“Food issues aren’t just dealing with food,” but also dealing with housing and transportation, too, she said. “It’s everybody working together.”

Chopin Hall has more than 2,500 families, with more than 6,000 people, in its system. The good news is that since 2014, the numbers of people seeking food have been declining each year, Rooker said.

Rooker, who has been in the position for two years, said he “wanted to make sure we were not driving people away,” that there was nothing in how Chopin Hall was doing things that was causing people not to seek help. But after getting feedback from longtime volunteers, his belief is that the decline in people coming in is because there is genuinely a bit less of a need. After all, the economy declined around 2008 but has been improving since then, and there are currently more jobs available in Hancock County, he said.

But the figures of the recent Community Health Assessment do illustrate that hunger is still a concern in Hancock County. The assessment was a survey of adult residents, teen residents and parents of young children in 2018.

It found that adults experienced the following food insecurity issues during the past 12 months: food assistance was cut (4%), had to choose between paying bills and buying food (3%), loss of income led to food insecurity issues (3%), worried food would run out (3%), were hungry but did not eat because they did not have money for food (2%), and went hungry/ate less to provide more food for their family (2%).

Three percent of adults had experienced more than one food insecurity issue in the past year.

Of youths in grades six through 12, 10% reported going to bed hungry because their family did not have enough money for food at least one night per week. Two percent went to bed hungry every night of the week.

Eleven percent of parents of younger children had at least one food insecurity issue in the past year. They reported the following: had to choose between paying bills and buying food (7%), went hungry/ate less to provide more food for their family (5%), food assistance was cut (3%), loss of income led to food insecurity issues (3%), worried food would run out (3%), and were hungry but did not eat because they did not have money for food (3%). Six percent of parents experienced more than one food insecurity issue in the past year.

Twelve percent of all Hancock County residents, and 16% of children ages 0 to 17, were living in poverty.

Hamilton said a goal for the West Ohio Food Bank in the near future is to expand education and offerings for people with health conditions like diabetes or heart disease. She said people may talk to a dietitian and learn they need to change their lifestyle to eat healthier, but fresh produce may be more expensive than “snacks” or “food that will fill you up more.”

And reducing obesity involves looking at whether you can make healthier food choices, which often you cannot when you are on a limited budget, she said.

The food bank, which is based in Lima and serves 11 counties, gets 1 million pounds of food donated each month.

“We are an actual warehouse,” with the freezer alone the size of 11 semi trucks, Hamilton said.

Want to help? Hamilton said the food bank appreciates donations of food, but monetary donations actually go further, because the food bank has the ability to purchase food much more cheaply than most people can.

Rooker is looking for volunteers for different tasks, including “heavy lifters” who can help sort and move the donated food. He said “we are a very giving community,” but sometimes Chopin Hall gets so much in donations that it’s overwhelming if there aren’t enough people to sort it. (Chopin Hall also accepts donations of clothing, and this time of year takes in a lot of clothes that are left over after yard sales.)

Rooker stressed he is “not complaining” — but he’s seeking volunteers. He can be reached at 419-422-6401.

If you don’t have enough to eat, do go and get food, Hamilton said.

“All of us at some point or another have a crisis in our life,” she said. Even if you are doing fine now, “We’re one crisis away from needing assistance.”

She said this is why the food bank exists, and why churches provide free meals. “The food is there,” and it does no one any good if it goes to waste, she said. Grocery stores donate food, a lot of which has a limited shelf life, so people who need it should take advantage of it.

“Know that people are out there,” Hamilton said.

The West Ohio Food Bank can be reached at 419-222-7946.

State budget nourishes senior produce program

The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides eligible older adults with $50 in coupons each growing season to use at participating farmers’ markets and roadside stands to purchase qualifying produce. The program is popular among seniors and has a 95% redemption rate, the Ohio Department of Aging stated in a press release.

“Farmers’ markets help older Ohioans learn about and buy healthy food, as well as provide opportunities to interact with friends and neighbors,” said Ursel J. McElroy, director of the department. “Expanding access to farmers’ markets by older adults also supports local farmers, many of whom are older adults themselves.”

The state budget passed in July included $1.2 million in funding to the Ohio Department of Aging in each fiscal year to serve more Ohioans with the program. This funding will be combined with approximately $1.6 million in annual funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as local funds such as senior levy dollars and donations.

During the 2020 growing season, the program will expand to new counties and eliminate wait lists in areas currently served by the program.

The program is currently available in 45 Ohio counties. They include Hancock, Hardin, Allen and Putnam (affiliated with Area Agency on Aging 3), as well as Henry, Wood and Seneca (affiliated with the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio, Inc.). Wyandot County is not part of the program.

Seniors can learn more about the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and other nutrition services supported by the Ohio Department of Aging at www.aging.ohio.gov/nutrition, or by calling 866-243-5678 to be connected to the agency serving their community.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494

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Twitter: @swarthurs

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