A spotlight was put on the issue of food insecurity in Southeast Ohio and nationally, following Joe Burrow’s Heisman acceptance speech in December 2019, which then led to a mass of donations to the Athens County Food Pantry. Now, the food pantry has found a way to use these donations to create a sustainable long-term fund to help them fight food insecurity in the region for years to come.
The Athens County Food Pantry received over $650,000 after Burrow’s Heisman speech, more than eight times its normal yearly budget of about $75,000. In order to make this money last in the long-term, the food pantry found an investment opportunity with the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, creating the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.
“We were looking for that long-term investment opportunity…we chose the FAO fund, because there were matching funds that came through the state of Ohio, so every dollar that we put into the fund was matched. So, our $350,000 investment immediately turned into a $700,000 endowment fund,” Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry, said.
Because of how this fund is set up, the money will grow over time, allowing the food pantry to use this fund to fight food insecurity for generations to come.
“(The pantry) will be able to use more money from the fund to support their mission as that continues to grow through investment,” Daniel Kington, the Communications and Programs Associate for the FAO, said.
The donations have already begun allowing the food pantry to expand its budget, buy additional appliances and keep more food on the shelves for the people that it serves.
The food pantry has added commercial refrigerators to have more fresh produce and other dairy products. It has also increased its food buys by 50%.
In addition to the long-term fund, the donations that came after the speech also allowed the pantry to look at some intermediate goals, such as helping other pantries in the area.
“That is one of our intermediate things we're looking at is, are there ways that we can help some of our fellow pantries in Athens County… So, having these extra funds has given us the ability to look beyond just our doors and we've been doing that,” Bright said.
Joe Burrow’s speech opened the door for a larger conversation about hunger in the United States. This relief fund is working to be an amplification of that message, especially as COVID-19 has left more people in the region with food insecurity.
“All new gifts to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund will help us amplify his message, and reach the many children, families, and individuals in need of support from the Athens County Food Pantry for many years,” Cara Dingus Brook, president and CEO of the FAO, said in a release. “The COVID-19 crisis has made all the more plain the great needs and inequities in our communities. We hope the creation of this Fund will give us all the chance to make just as clear our commitment to our neighbors as well.”
Food bank and pantry leaders commend Joe Burrow for getting up during his Heisman speech and bringing this issue to the forefront of the conversation. His speech not only helped the food pantry, but helped uplift the region as a whole.
“I think it's something that people always knew was here,” Claire Gysegem, public relations manager for Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, which oversees the Southeast Ohio Foodbank. “But once Joe Burrow mentioned it in his acceptance speech, it was kind of like this awakening, where it forced us to really confront the issue. I think that Southeast Ohio as a whole, as an entire region was definitely uplifted in some way, shape or form by that speech.”
At a more national level, it also brought people’s attention to what a widespread issue that food insecurity is in the country.
“I think (his speech) has really opened some people's eyes as to how widespread this problem is, this is not just all those people that live down there, but it is across the country that we have people that every night go to bed hungry. And that's just not acceptable, and we need to fix that,” Bright said.
Though donations to the food pantry were an amazing show of support and helped the community in many ways, food bank leaders also urge people to support the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which they see as the first line of defense against food insecurity in this country, Bright said.
“And so I always urge people, ‘Hey, if you would like to make a donation to a food bank, that is, that's phenomenal. If you want to make a donation to a food pantry, that is phenomenal. But alongside that with your donation, if you could also call your congressperson to support these federal hunger programs, that's gonna take your money even further,‘” Gysegem said.
More and more families are struggling with food insecurity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and SNAP is an important part of helping both these families in poverty, as well as lifting up a community's economy.
“That money is loaded onto cards that these families have, and they can spend the money on those cards at local grocery stores, at local farmers markets. SNAP is definitely one of the most powerful programs that we have ... I mean, it has lifted so many millions of families out of poverty,” Gysegem explained.
However, Gysegem wants people to know that she thinks that what Joe Burrow did was phenomenal, as it put hunger into the national conversation, allowing for people advocating for programs like SNAP to be heard.
Bright also believes that it helped amplify a platform to advocate for the hungry in this country to politicians.
“It's put us kind of on the map, as a voice, as an agency, as an organization, and so we have a little more standing perhaps,” Bright said. “When we talk, people right now are listening.”
To donate to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, visit FAO’s website here.