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Jane Newton, Athens County Food Pantry employee, shows the selection of food available at the food pantry on Jan. 21, 2022. In the wire cart are recent vegetable donations from Community Food Initiatives, a non-profit organization based in Athens, Ohio, and in front of those are selection items and prepackaged meal bags.

Food banks, pantries continue to fight food insecurity in Southeast Ohio as COVID-19 affects funds, supplies

Despite a significant amount of money donated to the Athens County Food Pantry following Joe Burrow’s 2019 Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, food insecurity continues to be an issue for many Athens residents as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year. 

Before the impact the pandemic would have on food insecurity was known, the Athens County Food Pantry was able to start the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund through the Foundation of Appalachian Ohio. The pantry started the fund, which will eventually generate a source of income, to provide for future needs. 

“Our $350,000 endowment investment turned into a $700,000 investment immediately,” Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry, said. “It is now, I believe, about 1.3 million (dollars) at this point with other monies that have come in, other donations that have been made.”

The donations have made it possible for the Athens County Food Pantry to increase its supply stock and the number of community outreach programs it sponsors. 

“If we start running low on packed boxes and bags, we bring in our packing people, and they pack, so we always have food there,” Bright said. “We don't have to worry about whether or not we're going to be able to serve people.”

Although the Athens County Food Pantry feels secure in its ability to provide to those who use its services, surrounding counties’ pantries have had an increased demand for services. 

The increase of people in Southeast Ohio affected by food insecurity may be a result of job loss and children staying home from school due to COVID-19, Valerie Keeney, the public relations coordinator at Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, said.

“We do still continue to see the increased need here as the pandemic continues,” Keeney said. “Obviously, we’re getting through it, which is great, and have seen things opening back up with the vaccines, but people are still struggling.”

Many Ohio University students also deal with food insecurity, Charlie Fulks, the basic needs coordinator at OU’s Cats’ Cupboard Food Pantry, said. Fulks oversees the campus food pantry, located on the fifth floor of Baker University Center. 

Cats’ Cupboard is an available resource for OU undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty and staff. An average of 22 students visit the Cats’ Cupboard daily, Fulks said, seeking food as well as personal care and hygiene items.

“What we try to do in the Cats’ Cupboard Food Pantry is mimic the shopping experience you would have if you were to go to any grocery store,” Fulks said. “Needed items that people … want are often those personal hygiene, personal care items. We have several … pantry members who are in need of those items.”

The Athens County Food Pantry also recognizes the need for personal care items of people in Athens County. Money from the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund has created room for new projects in the pantry’s budget. The need for hygiene products is the focus of one of the pantry’s newest initiatives. 

“We are currently doing a cleaning and personal hygiene project; we just kicked that off this month,” Bright said. “This month's item is one of those big, giant jugs of laundry detergent. Next month, it will be a bag of assorted cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products and then the following month will be paper goods and then we're going to rotate that throughout the year.”

The Athens County Food Pantry was able to maneuver around the purchasing limits that were placed on many products during the beginning of the pandemic by shopping at different stores due to the funds it had saved, Bright said. There was originally a struggle to get exactly what it wanted, but currently, supplies are easier to sustain. 

Despite collaborations and donations from the Athens County Food Pantry and the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, the Cats’ Cupboard encounters supply issues regularly. 

“We're always having issues with (replenishing supplies),” Fulks said. “We had an issue where it took us over two weeks to get egg cartons delivered to us. They're supposed to be here in two to three days … so things like that can be an issue.”

Prices of various items have also increased recently, Fulks said. However, purchasing items through OU’s Culinary Services as well as receiving food donations and trading items with the Southeast Ohio Food Bank and Athens County Food Pantry have made it possible for Cats’ Cupboard to remain a dependable resource on OU’s campus. 

As COVID-19 continues to affect those grappling with food insecurity, local food banks and pantries encourage those who can donate food, money or volunteer time to do so. 

For more information on how to help those facing food insecurity, those interested can visit the Athens County Food Pantry website or the Cats’ Cupboard website.


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