When anti-poverty advocate and retired Athens County Ohio Welfare Director Jack Frech began his career as a welfare caseworker in the 1970s, there were virtually no food pantries or soup kitchens in Athens County.
Over the years, food pantries and soup kitchens have sprouted up throughout the county and surrounding region. That is due to increased food insecurity and a growing demand for support due to cutbacks in welfare and changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, application process.
“Our public policies have drained millions of dollars out of our communities and as a result, people are more food insecure now than they were 40 years ago,” Frech said.
SNAP is a federal program for food stamps that’s administered through Job and Family Services at state and county levels. To be eligible, those in need must make an income at 38 percent of the federal income poverty level or lower.
“The amount of benefits we gave people through food stamps and cash benefits (in the past) pretty much met their basic needs,” Frech said. “It’s only been because over the years we have cut back on those programs, both cash and food stamps so severely, that now families literally can’t get by unless they make a trip to the local food pantry.”
In 2013, there was a 15 percent cut in benefits and a new requirement, which mandated that single, able-bodied people are not eligible to receive food stamps for more than three months.
“The combination of those two things ended up costing millions of dollars to our region bc of those benefit cuts. That of course drove the food insecurity up,” Frech said. “(SNAP) is not intended to provide all the food that people need, it’s only intended to provide about 75 percent of the food people need.”
Those in need are not only able to obtain food stamps through Job and Family Services, they are also able to request assistance from local food pantries. They go through a screening process and then those names are distributed to such charitable organizations.
“There’s a limit of how often you can receive food from these organizations,” said Theresa Moran, assistant professor and food studies theme director at Ohio University. “And then there’s also emergency food aid through these pantries as well.”
Food pantries and soup kitchens throughout Athens County are run by a variety of groups, ranging from religious organizations to OU.
“Our university is a neighbor in this community and so we have a double obligation, we have an obligation to our population of students who are here for four years and then we have an obligation to our community that is always here,” Moran said.
As far as the outreach that’s done to make sure people with food insecurity are connected with their SNAP benefits, that’s very piecemeal county by county, said Policy and Planning Assistant at The Center for Community Solutions Adam White.
“It depends a lot on social services and case-workers and non-profits at the local level,” White said.
The Food Studies program at OU has a partnership with the Baker Center Food Pantry that provides fresh produce from the student-run farm to the pantry throughout the harvesting season.
“We want to make sure that fruits and vegetables, as we know are often more costly than industrially processed food and we also know the nutrients in fresh fruit and vegetables are extremely important and critical, especially in this vulnerable young adult population,” Moran said. “So we’re really working hard to make sure that we can provide as much as the population needs with the university food pantry.”
Despite efforts to enhance food pantries in the area being beneficial, food insecurity remains to be an issue.
“For a lot of folks just food stamps doesn’t get them through so people have become much more dependent on food pantries and soup kitchens,” Frech said. “All of which though are just a symptom of the fact that the food stamp program doesn’t work well enough. I mean, if we gave people enough money on food stamps, you wouldn’t need food pantries or soup kitchens.”
Athens County and surrounding counties, including Gallia, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Morgan, Monroe, Noble, Perry and Washington, make up about 4 percent of the statewide total of active SNAP members.
“We’re the richest country in the world — no one should ever go hungry here,” Frech said.