Take to the bank

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

About 30 million pounds of food move on and off the towering shelves of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank each year. It makes its way to pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies in Franklin County, along with 19 more counties to the east and south, covering 10,000 square miles.

Next September, the hunger-relief organization is poised to move its operation to a new, larger, green facility that will broaden its capacity for storing and distributing food, support programs for recycling and growing food, and provide meeting and training space for volunteers. So far, $10.7 million of the $16 million needed for the new facility has been raised.

According to food bank President and CEO Matt Habash, who spent 14 years on Columbus City Council, the expansion comes at a critical time. The number of hungry individuals and families in Central Ohio continues to grow.

Is there a marked difference in the number of people who need help this year?

A tremendous increase in requests for help is what we're seeing. This year so far - up through October - we're up 14 percent in requests for help for all of our agencies. A year ago we were up 10 percent over the year before that. ... If the stock market had our growth curve, we'd be in a heck of a lot better shape.

The reality is that even though we're distributing more food this year, we're still not meeting the growing need.

One of the things we're beginning to track with our agencies is how many families are coming in for the first time. We're starting to see that little pantries on the West Side of Columbus are saying, "We have 30 new families this month." These are small agencies that are only doing about 100 families a month. We had a meeting yesterday of our agencies here and in Grove City, and we're talking about a 23-percent increase ... so there are a lot more people struggling because of this economy.

We're celebrating the fact that gas has dropped below two dollars a gallon. When it hit four dollars a gallon, that's a real, real big burden on somebody's who's on a fixed income, or somebody who's living paycheck to paycheck. When you have those kinds of increases, along with rising utility costs, health-care costs, housing crisis, all of that stuff coming together, it almost creates a perfect storm in terms of need.

Where does all of this food come from and where is it going?

We now have what I call the three legs of a stool: the food industry still donating surplus food, the government-supported food - the old cheese giveaway of the '80s has evolved into a commodity-distribution program that [provides] a lot of good food from the USDA - and then the state of Ohio participating with some funding, and we partner with farmers. This year we'll probably have distributed over five million pounds of produce. The last piece of it is the community participation, and that's the holiday/Christmas drives and the food drives that go on all year long.

Is this time of year still critical for fundraising and volunteering?

It's the time when people are much more sensitized to giving ... because you think of Thanksgiving, you always think of a meal, giving thanks, celebrating, people coming together. What I'm always amazed at is the number of people that are willing to give up Thanksgiving or Christmas and volunteer at a shelter to distribute food. It's almost to the point where there are too many folks and we say, "How about an I.O.U. - can you come back in January, February, March, and help out those agencies that really struggle through the winter months?"

What are the best ways for people to help?

There are a lot of different ways, whether it's supporting a food pantry or soup kitchen, and obviously cash donations. For every dollar we spend to operate here, we distribute eight dollars' worth of food. Some people donate their time, some people have the resources to donate funds - whatever those are, it really is about encouraging people to get involved.

Mid-Ohio Foodbank

Web: midohiofoodbank.org