A Growing Hunger

Cincinnati’s food insecurity problem is growing and experts say it needs serious attention

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click to enlarge St. Vincent DePaul’s Tim Barr (left) helps a client shopping at the organization’s West End food pantry.
St. Vincent DePaul’s Tim Barr (left) helps a client shopping at the organization’s West End food pantry.

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incinnati in many ways is riding a high, winning national attention for its continued resurgence. But as an ongoing revitalization fueled by complex multi-million dollar developments bustles, many residents are still struggling with a basic need for food. And while programs exist to help stamp out hunger from one day to the next, experts call for a more systemic approach.

The region’s hunger problem isn’t relegated to a few isolated pockets. More than 133,000 families receive food assistance in Hamilton County, according to the Ohio Children’s Hunger Alliance, a statewide group. That’s one in six people in the county. Nearly 40 percent of Cincinnati residents surveyed reported at least occasional difficulties obtaining food, Tevis Foreman of the Cincinnati Health Department says. Thirty-six percent of people surveyed in surrounding rural counties and 22 to 25 percent in the suburbs reported similar difficulties. 

The Freestore Foodbank services a 20-county area.

“We have customers in every single zip code,” says CEO and President Kurt Reiber. “Hunger is not an issue that is relegated to Over-the-Rhine or Newport or Dayton, Kentucky, or Price Hill. Hunger knows no boundaries.”

Leslee Hutchinson sits in the lobby of St. Vincent DePaul in the West End waiting for her turn to shop for groceries at the organization’s food pantry on a recent Tuesday morning. Hutchinson, originally from Roselawn, has been homeless since November, when her daughter could no longer afford rent payments on an apartment in Pleasant Ridge.

Hutchinson took care of her 3-year-old granddaughter and chipped in with food stamps to help feed the family while her daughter worked driving a forklift for wages that put her just a few dollars above the federal poverty line. It was a fragile arrangement, and the loss of the apartment left them without a place to stay.

Since that time, Hutchinson has slept in doorways, at shelters and, most recently, at a group home in the College Hill area. It’s her first visit in a few years to the St. Vincent DePaul food bank, but she’s relied on others in the area. She and her daughter also relied on pantries when they were living together.

“I’m a single mother, so I’ve used the pantries for years,” Hutchinson says.

Tim Barr, who works at the St. Vincent DePaul pantry through a year-long service program, says the pantry does everything it can, but can’t fill the needs of its clients by itself.

“When someone who has four or more people comes through the pantry, I know the food they’re getting is not enough for their family,” he says. “I wish in some way we could provide more for them, but I also know what we’re doing right now is helping them to survive.”

St. Vincent’s nine pantries serve tens of thousands of people every year. Its West End location can sometimes see more than 100 people a day.

Experts say fighting systemic hunger among families like the Hutchinsons goes beyond providing the next meal. It also involves bigger struggles with geographic factors like food deserts — areas like the West End, Camp Washington and Bond Hill that do not have easy access to grocery stores — along with economic factors like underemployment, lack of affordable housing and transportation, plus social barriers like a lack of access to food preparation knowledge and equipment.

“Everything really ties in — the poverty issue, the affordable housing issue, the hunger issue — it all goes hand in glove,” says Reiber of the Freestore Foodbank.

According to the World Health Organization, food security means stable economic and physical access to food. A person is food insecure when they cannot afford food, can’t easily access food for geographical reasons, or are unsure about where they will get food in the future.

The most obvious cause of hunger is poverty, a challenge Cincinnati knows well. One-third of the city’s population is below the poverty line. Cincinnati ranks second in the nation in childhood poverty behind only Detroit. Without the money to buy food, it’s easy to see how people go hungry. But it’s more complex than just having a few dollars to buy bread.

While government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and others may help keep people fed, they’re not a permanent solution, advocates say.

“Food stamps aren’t really sufficient to meet a full grocery budget if that’s all you’re relying on,” says St. Vincent DePaul Manager of Strategic Initiatives Matt Flege.

A temporary boost to SNAP payments enacted in 2009 ran out near the end of 2013, cutting $29 a month for three-member Ohio households using the program. What’s more, Ohio passed up work requirement waivers from the federal government for nearly every county in the state last year, meaning recipients can be cut from the program if they haven’t found a job in three months. Even at full strength, however, food assistance programs don’t address deeper issues causing hunger.

“They’re not long-term solutions,” Foreman says. “They’re very effective programs by all means, and they are having a significant impact, but when we speak of food insecurity, we have to think long-term.”

Foreman says increasing access to affordable, healthy foods like fresh produce in the city’s food deserts would a good first step, but people who need that food also need to know how to prepare it. Organizations like the Freestore and St. Vincent DePaul run classes to teach people how to prepare and store food so they can make healthier choices and put food resources to better use. Advocates would like to see those kinds of program expanded.

“Today, many people, if given food, they don’t know how to prepare it, they don’t know how to save it,” says City Councilman Wendell Young, who is on Council’s Human Services Committee. He says he’d like to see what the city can do about increasing access to food preparation classes and community kitchens where food can be prepared.

Hutchinson says she likes to cook but isn’t able to do much these days.

“A lot of these pantries are pretty good. You get to pick your own stuff,” Hutchinson says. But the selection alone often doesn’t help. “They have frozen meat, vegetables, but if you don’t have a place to cook it, it doesn’t do you much good.”

Hutchinson says she mostly grabs “boxes of cereal, ramen noodles, cans that pop open, something for a microwave, tuna fish. I’d rather cook. It kills me.”

Food insecurity and the poverty that causes it have serious consequences and puts many in a position where they must make difficult, sometimes damaging choices. Seventy percent of clients surveyed by the Freestore in the Greater Cincinnati Area have had to prioritize between buying food and paying for utilities. Sixty-six percent have had to choose between food and medicine, 55 percent between food and rent, and 68 percent between food and transportation.

“Very many of the people that we serve are employed, but it’s part time. It’s minimum wage,” says Flege. “That means you have to make tough choices between food and paying the rent, buying food, buying more medication.”

The effects of food insecurity fall especially hard on low-income youth. Many studies tie hunger with high levels of infant mortality, poor school attendance and performance, behavioral issues and physical illnesses.

“A hungry child can’t learn, and an uneducated adult can’t earn,” Reiber says. “We’ve done some great things in this city over the past 20 years. I celebrate all the economic achievements. But we have to raise the question — why are we second in childhood poverty?” ©

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