Mid-Ohio Food Collective seeks $30 million as role evolves

Cynthia Bent Findlay
Nate Deitwieler, left, and Jessica Wheeler plant lettuce at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective Farm on the Hilltop

Jason Messick has seen hunger from just about every side. As a teen, he and his single mother needed the help of food pantries. As an adult, Messick volunteered to give back for almost a decade at the Mid-Ohio Market at HEART in Reynoldsburg, a Mid-Ohio Food Collective partner agency.

Fast forward to pandemic 2020, Messick was laid off from his job as operations manager for Sparkspace in the Arena District. He found himself transitioning to MOFC customer for the first time since those teen years – although he also took the opportunity to step up his volunteer hours, as well.

Before the end of the 2020, Jason was offered the job of Operations Manager at HEART.

So from a 360 degree view, Messick’s seen the impact innovations MOFC has made in enabling customers – which HEART calls neighbors – to connect with healthier food on a consistent basis.

“As we learned to make better supply decisions for our neighbors, that really sped up our capacity, got people in and out quicker especially in the pandemic, if we make it easy for them with selections it’s naturally quicker,” he says.

Messick is describing one step in a major evolution in the way the Mid-Ohio Food Collective makes a difference in the lives of Central Ohioans.

The umbrella agency has grown from the original Mid-Ohio Foodbank to expanded service models, and now is on the crest of a wave with a bold new $30 million Rooted In You fundraising campaign. The campaign’s mission is to invest in five major initiatives towards tackling poverty itself.

MOFC’s evolution came at the end of many years of thought, discussion and research internally, with customers, with researchers, with other agencies around the country.

“For many years, our customers would come at end of the month, get a three- to five-day supply of food, usually canned food, and in some cases we’d never see them again,” says Matt Habash, MOFC President and CEO. “Over the last ten years, we’ve really shifted our thinking to a food is health strategy, and more regular access.”

Habash has been at the MOFC for 36 of the agency’s 40 years, and, he says, the past ten have been positively transformative.

In 2010, MOFC agreed to be one of three food banks partnering with Feeding America to look at food insecurity and diabetes. That journey sparked a sea change in an agency that had been growing and evolving already.

Working with Feeding America and University of California San Francisco researchers, the study quantifed results from trials in three states with more than 600 food pantry customers with diabetes.

The 2015 study found that when patients are prescribed and receive diabetes-appropriate foods like fresh produce, plus monitoring, referrals to care and self-management support over a six month period, patient’s HbA1c levels showed important reductions. So did their adherence to medications and sense of control of their diabetes.

“None of us buy our perishable food once a month. We knew from diabetes research, if people come 11 to 25 times per year, they could lower a1c levels, improve diabetes, hypertension, help weight loss. We knew we had to rethink our work and rebuild ourselves as a low cost, high value healthcare strategy.”

Rethinking food as healthcare, he says, led to the Farmacy program, in which participating healthcare providers prescribe patients healthy food from the MOFC.

Now MOFC is aiming beyond that to drawing connections between people and resources beyond canned beans – connections to create a true net between the MOFC and other service agencies, education, health care – which is the only way to truly lift people from hunger and poverty.

“We’re not going to food bank our way out of poverty,” Habash says.

But, he says, we can get there by working smarter.

“Columbus State is losing 6,000 students per year before they can graduate. Can we prevent that? We’ve got to get you to your higher paying job, and if we can do that, then we’ve got a chance to move people out of poverty. How do we address those issues differently, I think we as a community have the willingness to build that, and that’s what excites me.”

Habash says a focus on five particular initiatives – the Mid-Ohio Food Markets, better data and insight gathering, the Mid-Ohio Farm asset, the Collective’s main facility, and an intensified annual campaign, could make all the difference. And the campaign is already 80 percent of the way to its goal, having raised $24 million over the past year.

Mid-Ohio Farm on the Hilltop

Already, working with Feeding America, the MOFC has mined their own available data to refine their model of what the demand is for food on a real time basis, and how to meet it by better connection to farms with surplus on one end, and customers with specific needs, from medically to culturally, on the other.

“Over ten years, we’ve really developed software out of customer data for us to look at where hunger lives, not where hunger picked up food,” says Habash. That’s a win-win for everyone from farmers to agencies saving money to customers able to find missing meals.

The MOFC also developed its own app, FreshTrak, to help customers find and make appointments with pantries, and shared it with Feeding America to use throughout its network.

Those missions – achieving delivery to Central Ohio agencies of fresh produce, creating access to that food for the people who need it most – led to the rethinking of MOFC’s delivery to the end user, as well.

Plans are to expand the Mid-Ohio Markets, which debuted in 2019, from two to ten in high need areas in Franklin County. Instead of standing in line for a pre-packed box of canned goods, customers can shop at the Markets for lettuce, potatoes, fresh carrots, a large variety of fresh vegetables and other “whole” foods.

The Mid-Ohio Farm uses vertical gardening.

Sixty-five percent of all food distributed is fresh food now. Expanding market hours will also exponentially affect customers’ access to support.

“Customers said to us, ‘We can’t afford to shop at the food pantry. The two days they’re open are the two days I work,” Habash says. “That was a gut punch.”

The goal is to further develop FreshTrak’s data insights to eventually help connect to healthcare and other resources – and to use data entered in to the app to be predictive about what help is needed where throughout the community.

The Mid-Ohio Farm, an urban farm demonstrating vertical agriculture, connects communities with education on growing a family’s own fresh vegetables on, say, the back porch.

Finally, MOFC wants to expand their main facility in Grove City to build out a production kitchen, to allow for preparation of meals or meal kits where needed throughout the markets.

“It’s a lot of ask a mom working two jobs to go home and chop fresh vegetables. We can transform a 25-pound beef roast donation and allow them to pick up a healthy pre-packaged meal, make the convenient choice the healthy one,” Habash says.

All of these efforts are pointing straight at the big brash goal of going beyond feeding people in emergencies to ending hunger and lifting people out of poverty in Central Ohio.

Messick says the campaign’s goals to ramp up data gathering and fold that into the effort to provide wrap around services to his neighbors can transform communities.

“We’re not only taking care of the whole person, but feeding their soul,” he says. “When boils down to it, everyone is our neighbor.”

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.

Mid-Ohio Food Collective

3960 Brookham Drive, Grove City 43123

President and CEO: Matt Habash

Employees: 150

Mission: To end hunger one nourishing meal at a time while co-creating communities where everyone thrives.

2020 budget: $115.8 million; 75 million pounds of food distributed through almost 700 partner agencies