Central Ohio Nonprofits Ramp up to Fight Hunger in a Pandemic

How the Children's Hunger Alliance, Mid-Ohio Food Collective, Lifecare Alliance and Service! are addressing a rapidly growing consequence of the pandemic: food insecurity.

Peter Tonguette
Staff and volunteers unpack crates of nonperishable food at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, staff at the Children’s Hunger Alliance noticed a young woman making regular visits to its meal site at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Northern Lights Branch. They learned she was a mother whose children had, before the pandemic, received two meals a day in school. She had held onto her job, but she saw her hours reduced. Hers was a family in need. 

“She was struggling,” says Judy Mobley, president and CEO of the Children’s Hunger Alliance. “She was coming every day to get the meals that we were providing.” 

For countless Central Ohioans, the coronavirus pandemic arrived as it did for that young mother—like a bolt from the blue. One day, Downtown offices were jam-packed with workers; the next, they were emptied except for those considered essential. One day, most socialized without fear or hesitation; the next, distancing was recommended and masks required in many places. But in addition to the need to keep safe from the virus, another less obvious need quickly emerged that would affect surprisingly large numbers: the need for food. 

It is fair to say that one Central Ohioan who anticipated the virus’s relationship to increased food insecurity sooner than most is Matt Habash, the president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. In early March, when the Arnold Sports Festival was called off by Gov. Mike DeWine, Habash realized that times were about to change for the organization, which, in supplying 680 partners, serves 155,000 meals each day to individuals in 20 counties. 

“We listened to the governor,” Habash says. “When the governor started talking about closing the Arnold [to spectators] before we even had our first case, and he’s talking about closing schools, we realized, ‘Uh-oh.’ ” The team was already monitoring areas that were then known to be COVID-19 hot spots, such as Seattle. “We were talking to those food banks,” Habash says. “You could see it starting to happen.” 

The agency is one of a number of Central Ohio food-insecurity organizations that find themselves reckoning with a challenging new normal: For reasons ranging from job loss to the shuttering of schools and senior centers, hunger has increased among numerous demographics, including families, children, senior citizens and laid-off workers. 

For example, at Life- Care Alliance, which serves seniors through the Meals-on-Wheels program and operates a food pantry tailored to the specific needs of HIV/AIDS and cancer patients, officials have seen a 54 percent increase in the number of clients and a 65 percent increase in the number of meals; some clients who had received one meal now need two. 

Despite the challenges, agency leaders sound motivated and even invigorated. “I think you’ve got to step up in these things,” says LifeCare president and CEO Charles Gehring. “The staff almost is excited. They write me emails or they talk to me. I roam around the buildings, and they say, ‘Oh God, you know what? We got this done today.’ They know it’s different than making a widget that nobody cares about.” 

National Guard members were deployed to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective to supplement a diminished volunteer force during the pandemic.

Adapting to the Crisis 

Many agencies have been forced to reinvent how they bring food to their clients. The change was especially dramatic for Mid-Ohio Food Collective, which, in recent years, had deemphasized dry food, like breakfast cereals, in favor of fresh food, such as produce. The decision was in part out of necessity. By the mid-2000s, donations of dry food tailed off as grocery stores began using data to more accurately determine how much of a given product should be stocked, a process that led to less excess food available for pantries. Before the pandemic, the collective had a total mix of food that was about 65 percent fresh. 

Then came COVID. 

Although Habash knew that the government would eventually make surplus food available to the agency, he also knew that the process might take months. He felt that the increased need would be instantaneous. “We immediately, without any additional dollars in the bank, said, ‘Start buying truckloads of food,’ ” he says. “We had gotten away from doing that. We really were trying to minimize our semi-load purchasing of food, trying to live in the surplus fresh food market.” 

At press time, the agency had ordered 135 tractor-trailer loads of food since March. “Dry goods, toilet paper—the things that we knew were running out in the grocery stores,” Habash says. 

At the same time, the means by which the agency got food to its customers changed due to concerns over the virus. Its emphasis on grocery store-style shopping for clients was scrapped and replaced with a prepacked, drive-up, no-touch model. 

As it was ramping up its supply of food, the agency also had to contend with a depleted volunteer roster. Among the volunteers who worked at the agency’s Grove City warehouse, about half had been seniors, but as an at-risk group, they were being told to stay home. Corporate employees, once a reliable part of the agency’s volunteer corps, were also scarce in the new work-from-home environment. 

Habash had his own concerns. If COVID showed up within the food bank, he might need to close the site, leaving clients scrambling. Now-familiar safety practices, such as temperature checks administered on each person entering the building, were instituted early on. 

To replenish the volunteer forces, National Guard soldiers were dispatched to help; 100 Guard members were on hand from March through August, and about 50 will remain until Christmas. The Guard members went to work, quickly packing 27,000 emergency food boxes, many of them for distribution in rural counties where Habash anticipated few volunteers would be available, due to restrictions related to COVID-19. 

Despite the increased and ongoing demand, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective never ran out of food. Funding from the CARES Act, as well as private donations, enabled the agency to double its purchasing budget from $5.5 to $11 million—a sign of just how severe the need is. 

“We were really in our early time—and still are—telling people, ‘If you need help, come get it,’ ” Habash says. “Use the food so that you don’t spend money on food that you could have [used to pay] rent or utility bills. … Through no fault of their own, this happened.” 

A former employee of The Table walks through the empty restaurant to deliver a free meal to a furloughed food service worker.

An Industry in Need 

The Mid-Ohio Food Collective has been in existence for four decades, but the pandemic also gave rise to fresh approaches to tackling hunger. When bars and restaurants closed to curb the spread of the virus, chef Matthew Heaggans (co-owner of Preston’s: A Burger Joint) recognized right away that his fellow workers would be in need. “When the governor issued the shutdown order, it was just devastating,” Heaggans says. “It immediately cratered the industry here in Columbus.” The fear was that everyone from servers to cooks was now at risk of going hungry themselves. 

Keenly aware of the unfolding crisis, Heaggans and chef Sangeeta Lakhani (co-owner of The Table, which at press time was still closed due to COVID-19) considered what they could do right away to make the greatest impact on the industry they knew and loved. “We knew that what people were going to need faster than they needed anything else was food,” Heaggans says. “Within a few weeks, we teamed up with some other people in town, put together a little bit of money and started making food for affected industry workers.” 

Out of the conversations came a new organization dedicated to providing emergency aid for workers in the hospitality industry, Service! For eight weeks beginning in April, the group assembled a hybrid staff made up of temporary hires and volunteers to make meals available to impacted workers at pickup locations. “We worked out of the Food Fort,” Heaggans says, referring to the Economic and Community Development Institute’s kitchen incubator on the East Side. “They generously donated the use of their kitchen to us, and we stood there every day and made food for 200 people.” In all, more than 10,000 meals were prepared. 

After that initial two-month burst of activity, Service! transitioned into an agency issuing microgrants for another eight weeks. “It was a really, really low bar for entry,” Heaggans says. “If you’re in the industry, and you can demonstrate any sort of a need, we’ve been writing grants just to try to help get people through.” The average grant, supporting everything from hunger to housing, was $250. 

The hospitality field in Central Ohio remains precarious: Although many restaurants have reopened with restrictions on capacity, others closed for good, and unemployment in the field is still high. Consequently, Service! is now on the third leg of its journey. “We’re giving some consideration as a group to what our next step will be and how we’ll raise money to execute that,” says Heaggans, who, as an industry veteran, was unsurprised by the need the crisis generated. “The thing that was surprising and heartening was how quickly the community stood up to be of assistance and chip in money to help us meet those needs,” he says, pointing to the combination of individual and corporate giving that has helped to sustain Service! and those it helps. 

Restaurateur Sangeeta Lakhani puts together free meals for service workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

“I’m in Trouble.” 

The increases LifeCare Alliance has seen in the number of clients and meals served in its Meals-on-Wheels program can be directly linked to the pandemic: Individuals who had scraped by with the help of a relative or friend suddenly found themselves cut off from their usual supports. 

“We’re up just tons of people who thought they could get by, but now they can’t,” Gehring says. “Maybe they had a family member who was taking them to the grocery store on Saturday or bringing them stuff. Well, that all stopped with COVID because you’re not allowed in [their homes].” 

Although the pandemic has driven many to shop online, for many seniors, ordering food for delivery is not an option. “They don’t have the money to get deliveries to their home,” Gehring says, bluntly adding: “This whole thing with online—ordering from Amazon or whoever you’re ordering from—is a foreign concept to them.” According to surveys conducted by LifeCare, fewer than 15 percent of its Meals-on-Wheels clients have a computer or smartphone in their home. 

Gehring says that some 1,400 new Meals-on-Wheels recipients were added to the program through referrals from city, county or aging departments. “And they started calling us direct and saying, ‘I’m in trouble. My daughter can’t get to me because of COVID. I’m afraid. Can you help me? I have no food,’ ” Gehring says. 

Further taxing the agency’s Meals-on-Wheels operation: The program had previously run dining centers at senior communities, which, in addition to providing meals, helped with socialization. “Those all had to close with the [state health department’s] restaurant order,” Gehring says, so the dishes served as part of that program were suddenly turned into Meals-on-Wheels home-delivery meals. “Immediately we lost those meals, but we gained 800 people that were going to those locations,” he says. 

Meanwhile, use of LifeCare’s pantry for those in the midst of cancer or HIV/AIDS treatment has spiked by 54 percent. Before the pandemic, about 60 percent of its meals for the ailing were delivered; now, 100 percent are brought to these clients. “We never wanted you on a bus coming here to pick up stuff anyway,” Gehring says. “If you’re going through treatment, your immune system is horrendously compromised.” 

How did they cope with the increased volume? Production wasn’t a problem. “We can make meals all day long,” Gehring says. “We can add shifts. … The problem was getting them out to people.” Some of the agency’s paid drivers, which include people into their 80s, did not feel comfortable making stops during the pandemic. But over 1,000 new volunteers—many of them workers who had been temporarily sent home—stepped up in the early days of COVID. Many of the new clients, he says, could use microwave ovens, allowing them to accept frozen meals, which unlike hot food, which could be delivered once a week. 

“Now we’ve lost a lot of new volunteers because they’ve gone back to work,” Gehring says. “We’ve got a sign out in front of our building that says: ‘We’re hiring’—I mean, literally.” 

A custodian wheels out a cart of grab-and-go lunches for school-aged children at Columbus South High School.

Nourishing Children 

There are few better illustrations of the ripple effect of the pandemic than the spike in food insecurity among children. “Kids that don’t get healthy food, or enough food to live a healthy life, they just are behind from the very beginning,” says Mobley of the Children’s Hunger Alliance. 

During the pandemic, the Children’s Hunger Alliance, a 50-year-old statewide agency headquartered in Columbus, has seen sharp increases in demand for its services. For example, last summer the agency ran or sponsored four feeding sites in Central Ohio; this summer, that number was more than 50 sites. Over the summer, the organization served 1.2 million meals, Mobley says. 

The USDA, the agency that administers federal nutrition programs, waived regulations that mandated that children eat together at a given summer site, known as “congregate feeding.” That allowed CHA to go to a grab-and-go model. Instead of sitting down for a meal at a given site, family members could pull up to a parking lot and pick up meals. “Cars just line up and come and tell us, ‘I’ve got four kids at home,’ and we hand them four meals,” Mobley says, adding that people often picked up meals for neighbors with children who were in need. “In a time when we don’t want kids to be around each other very much, it just made sense,” she says. 

The need this summer could have been even greater if Columbus City Schools had not agreed to supply children with breakfasts and lunches during the summer; the Children’s Hunger Alliance provided dinners. “They normally would not have fed their kids in the summer, but [during] COVID they did, and we continued right alongside them,” Mobley says. 

The agency’s food vendor struggled to keep up with demand, but instead of turning programs away, the agency lessened the load by agreeing to pack meals using their own staff and volunteers. “We started ordering individual food components from Sysco ... and our landlord at our corporate office here provided us some space free of charge,” Mobley says. In late September, in recognition of the continuing need, the agency rented a warehouse to continue packing meals. 

Even though schools in Central Ohio have trickled back open this autumn, uncertainties remain about after-school meal programs. “As schools start opening, the question is, will they then allow these after-school partners to come and operate an after-school program?” Mobley says. “Do they not want to mess with that … because that’s additional risk? You’ve got other people in your building.” 

The leaders of the local hunger agencies agree that the aftereffects of the pandemic are likely to be felt for some time. “Until there’s a really good vaccine that really works,” Gehring says, “this need isn’t stopping.”

Fighting Hunger, by the Numbers

LifeCare Alliance

  • Clients increased by 54 percent 
  • Number of meals served increased by 65 percent 

Mid-Ohio Food Collective

  • 25 percent of families served since March are first-time clients 
  • Pounds of food distributed increased by 20 percent 

Service!

  • 10,000 meals served to affected hospitality workers 

Children’s Hunger Alliance

  • Summer feeding sites went from four in 2019 to over 50 this year

Reprinted from Giving: A Guide to Philanthropy 2021.