National Guard members are helping the foodbank streamline efforts to meet the increasing need for free food.

Matt Habash, the president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, has a message for people who are suddenly finding themselves in need following layoffs or furloughs as a result of the COVID-19 crisis: Food is available.

“I want to really get across to people who've never had to ask for help before,” says Habash. “Do not hesitate. I'd much rather have you come here to get food than going and buying food and then you can't afford to pay your rent, or you can't afford to pay your mortgage. … If you drop into poverty, it's really hard to get back out. We want to stabilize as many people who have temporarily lost their jobs as we can.

“We've got food—and we want them to make sure that they have access to it if they need it.”

The foodbank, which normally distributes 70 million pounds of food a year, has seen a big increase in demand since the novel virus began spreading in Ohio. By March 23, the foodbank had already given out 6 million pounds of food in the month, well above the norm. While the foodbank has a 20-county service area, half of the 520,000 individuals it usually serves are in Franklin County.

Meeting that need—while keeping staff, volunteers and customers safe from an extremely contagious virus—has been a challenge. Where clients once “shopped” for food, they are receiving pre-packaged boxes, often in a drive-through setting, to minimize risk. This week, 100 National Guard members began working at the foodbank, helping to keep operations going while the agency paused its community volunteer programs for a week to adjust to the changing situation. In an interview, Habash discussed how the foodbank is fighting hunger during the crisis. (His answers have been edited for length.)

Who is affected by hunger in Central Ohio, and what is the impact of the coronavirus on that need?

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank currently serves over 520,000 different individuals. About half of those folks are here in Franklin County, the rest are across the other 19 counties in our footprint, which goes over to Eastern Ohio and into parts of Southern Ohio. Amazingly, 36 percent of the people we help, normally, visit a distribution facility just once a year, and 70 percent come five times or less each year. There's a myth about how often people come—and we actually are encouraging them to come more often. Come twice a month and get fresh foods. Sixty percent of the food we give out is fresh.

The first week of the crisis we saw about a 20 percent overall increase in orders to us from our 680 partner agencies. We also operate a direct-service community food pantry here at the food bank [in Grove City] and that first week alone, that site was up 52 percent. We went from about 944 household visits to almost 1,500. So we’re seeing a huge increase.

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Can you give me a picture of who the new clients are that you're seeing at your partner agencies and in your Grove City facility?

You know, 62 percent of America makes less than $60,000 a year and 40 percent of America makes $12 an hour or less. I talked to somebody the other day; he and his partner had five jobs between them, all part-time kinds of jobs, and they only have one left. If you look at what's happening in the retail world, what's happening in the restaurant and bar world, those folks are working multiple jobs usually, hourly wage jobs, they are losing their income. Those folks have never had to ask for help before.

We also see the impact of kids who were getting two meals a day at school, maybe even after-school meals—as schools try to figure out how to serve kids who are no longer in the building; they can come to the building and pick up food.

We know there's a real stigma in trying to ask for help, so we're encouraging people, if you've lost your income source, whatever dollars you have, keep your mortgage or rent and pay those kind of things as opposed to spending dollars on food.

Have you been able to meet the increase in demand? 

So far, yes. We have been fortunate we've had some donors step up, and we had some regular food coming in the pipeline. We have placed some orders, but we're competing with the entire rest of the United States.

We've seen a drop-off, as you would expect, from our retail grocery partners who [normally] give us the [surplus food] that they can't sell. As you can imagine, there's none of that available right now. I think we're down about 65 percent at the grocery store level and we're getting no bread from our normal bread manufacturers. It’s like any other disaster, people buy bread, milk, eggs and those things first … so the manufacturers are spending full-time replenishing those stocks. That’s the current challenge [for the foodbank] at the retail level.

I’m encouraging people who want to help not to do food drives, because that just drains the stores faster. If they donate [money] to us, we're able to buy it by the semi-load—and buy cheaper than they can buy it in the grocery store most of the time.

Also, in general, even the shutdown still allows you to go to the grocery store when you need to buy something. When everybody rushes into the grocery store and takes all of the product, it creates a panic kind of mentality, and everybody else thinks they have to do that. And you start stockpiling things that you may or may not need. But the grocery stores, hopefully, from what we're seeing in some of the other hot spots like New York, will start to return to normal and people will realize they don't have to go do that.

Are you worried at all that the supply of goods to the food bank from some of your regular providers is going to be reduced as a result of pandemic?

The government food will not be reduced. In fact [there’s been] an increase in government commodity purchasing. The issue will be timing—it may be two to three months before we see some of that product.

How are you changing your operations to ramp up food distribution during this time?

The biggest change we’ve made is the exact opposite of what we were encouraging before this happened. We moved to a choice pantry model years ago, where our customers had an ability to choose the food that mattered to them. If you didn't eat certain things, for whatever reason, we didn't want to give you that food and have you not use it. We went to a market strategy, designed around reducing stigma by not calling it a food pantry and making it look like a grocery store with a lot of fresh food. You came in and shopped.

We’ve basically discouraged that model now. We’ve gone to a no-touch, drive-through service model. You stay in your car, we sign you in with an iPad—you don't even have to sign it any more. We're doing as much as we can to keep our volunteers safe and now the National Guard safe, as well as the people in the cars.

The good thing is, we’re used to working in natural disasters. We do a lot of it. ... So we have a lot of disaster preparedness, so we know what to do, we have plans—we just never had to implement it all across the country at the same time. That’s a lot different than usual.

This must be a hard time for your staff.

We've got an amazing team of people. They all want to be here and all want to help. … I never use the term non-essential because as far as I'm concerned, all 140 of our staff members are essential, but they do not need to be in the building if they have child care issues or anybody sick. Our teams are all working hard to figure out how they can work from home, as much as that's possible, and all of our office positions will continue to do that.

I'm more worried about people getting burned out because they’re doing 12-hour days. … I try to counsel them, “Okay, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It's going to go on for a long time. And as the health crisis abates and starts to decline, we'll continue with what'll be a slow economic recovery, and we'll have to help people continually. Thing are going to change for a long time and I need people healthy.

How can people help?

We paused volunteers this week, so we could understand exactly what the needs would be after we fill all the National Guard spots that are going to be here. Then we will fill in as needed here with additional volunteer help. So far, we've had a really strong response from volunteers.

We have a donation page on our website for people who want to make donations. We've had some major corporations step up already and give us dollars, so that we can acquire the food, and we would just encourage people if they want to help, that's the best way they can help us right now: Give us the dollars to bring in the additional resources. To donate or volunteer, go to midohiofoodbank.org