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Photo of Nelsonville Thursday Night Community Dinners provided by Emma Maddocks.

Volunteers work through food banks, meal programs to keep families fed during pandemic

A 2017 Feeding America survey indicated Athens County has the highest rate of food insecurity in Ohio, 4.8% over the state average. Communities already facing struggles prior to COVID-19, like Athens, are now feeling harsh impacts of the coronavirus as unemployment skyrockets due to the governor’s orders to close all nonessential businesses. 

However, organizations like the Southeast Ohio Food Bank have kept its doors open, fighting to aid the region even without the volunteer support it usually depends on. As the food bank works to distribute food to those in need, its primary concern is keeping everything as sanitary as possible to prevent the further spread of the virus. 

This makes work difficult, as large groups are no longer allowed to gather to package and distribute food. David Keller, the Southeast Ohio Food Bank’s development coordinator, said the food bank has been fighting hard against hunger, working closely with both the National Guard and 70 member agencies across Southeast Ohio.

In the past, the food bank has put together large scale mobile distribution events in Athens, Perry, Gallia and Washington counties, where it serves upward of 400 families. Now, it’s had to entirely rebuild the volunteer opportunities to limit contact between volunteers and clients.

“It’s unfortunate because it's that personal contact that really drives a lot of people to volunteer,” Keller said. “They wanna get out there, talk with individuals and see their work making a difference and, quite literally, we’ve had to sterilize that.”

Keller said the leadership and partnerships provided to the food bank from the governor, the Ohio Association of Food Banks, Food Banks Across America and the Athens City-County Health Department are what have kept the Southeast Ohio Food Bank up and running, providing resources and helping the food bank develop a policy to distribute in a safe, healthy manner.

Along with practicing social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing, food bank volunteers are routinely screened for illness symptoms and are soon going to be thermometered each time they come to work. Volunteers are also urged not to touch their face, hair or any personal items.

“It's just slowing down, looking at what we do and looking at what vectors are opening us up for issues,” Keller said. “Same thing we have to do for food preparation, for biological or chemical contamination. Now it's just taking a different look at our approach, where it's not so much food-centered as it is person-centered.”

Although the National Guard is currently working at the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, Keller expressed worries about what will happen after they leave. The food bank has lost contact with many volunteers, so they’re encouraging people to reach out.

“One of the things I’m very concerned about is June, July, August, when this hopefully starts to taper off,” Keller said. “We’re going to need these volunteers in full force, so keeping that contact with them is so important for us.”

In Nelsonville, the program Nelsonville Thursday Night Community Dinner is also operating in full force, delivering hot meals every Thursday to families and people in need. Emma Maddocks, a senior at Ohio University studying applied nutrition, is a volunteer who works with the program’s chef to build the weekly meals.

“This week, we prepared food for 198 people,” Maddocks said. “The dinner included broccoli, chicken, macaroni and cheese, a carrot curry soup, pineapple salsa, Shagbark chips, a salad with a bottle of salad dressing, apple crisps, banana bread, yogurt and whole wheat bread.”

Maddocks said the best way to help out would be by purchasing items from the program’s Amazon Wishlist. These items are high priority and must be replaced every single week because the program goes through them so quickly. 

Prior to the spread of the coronavirus, an average of 80 meals a week were cooked. Now, the program has seen a significant increase, as 250 meals are cooked a week for those in need.

Dottie Fromal, one of the organizers of the community dinner program, said the program initially was run in a community dinner space so that families could share their meals together. Now to prevent human contact, the program has split into two separate teams, one for cooking and one for delivering the food to homes.

Chef Katie McGushin works with a small team of well-trained volunteers to prepare, cook and package meals at Tri-County Career Center. While in the kitchen, everyone makes sure to prioritize wearing gloves, masks and keeping distance from each other in the kitchen. Once the meals are prepared, a small group of six to seven drivers comes to Tri-County Career Center to deliver to 10 to 12 homes each. As few people as possible touch the delivery boxes.

“We try to make sure they get one healthy hot meal a week,” Fromal said. “We wish it could be more. We try to encourage all of our families to stay inside, and we will just put the meal on the front porch or the doorstep, and you can wave from the window.”

Those that want to help out are encouraged to reach out to the Southeast Ohio Food Bank at or to donate to Chef Katie’s Amazon Wishlist.


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