Lives on the Edge

Down economy puts even more stress on Freestore/Foodbank’s efforts to help

Nov 26, 2008 at 2:06 pm

With rising costs for food and housing combined with a credit crunch and job layoffs for some, an old tune by singer Dolly Parton is ringing truer than ever: “Lord, it looks like a hard candy Christmas.”

As some of us grumble about not being able to afford gifts for our families and friends this holiday season, Greater Cincinnati is filled with thousands of people whose worries are much more basic: How will I feed myself and my loved ones?

The Freestore/Foodbank is trying to cope with skyrocketing demand for its services, hoping to raise enough money and receive enough food donations to distribute a half-million pounds of food to 16,000 families, or about 37,500 individuals, throughout the region — its largest ever effort during the holidays.

“The numbers of people relying on us are significantly higher than ever before,” says John Young, president and CEO of the Freestore/Foodbank. “It’s the new face of poverty in our community. The people who have been poor and need some help traditionally are still with us, those who have disabilities or are ex-offenders. But the increase is in the working poor.

“The jobs that people used to have that paid them $20 an hour on an assembly line, those jobs are gone. Now they’re replaced with jobs that pay a third of that and have no benefits like health insurance. We’re seeing a lot of people whose lives are on the edge, economically.”

[See photos and audio of local residents visiting the Freestore/Foodbank before Thanksgiving.]

Just as miners used to send canaries into coal mines to gauge whether dangerous gas leaks lie ahead of them, trends at the Freestore indicated a severe economic downturn was occurring long before recent warnings about a possible recession by federal banking officials.

In 2005 the Freestore served an average of 1,387 people per week at its food pantry on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine. Just two years later, in 2007, that number jumped to 2,153 people per week, a 55 percent increase.

“And we’re seeing even more people so far this year,” Young cautions. “We think we’re a bellwether for how the economy is faring.”

Earlier this month the Freestore launched its “Hunger Is Unacceptable” campaign, with a goal of raising $1.5 million in November and December.

During the holiday food drive, needy people are each given a box that contains non-perishable food items as well as special holiday treats like stuffing, cranberry sauce and a turkey or chicken. Distribution dates this year are Nov. 24-26 and Dec. 22-24.

Founded in 1971 by Frank Gerson, a worker at Cincinnati’s city dump who collected discarded items to help the needy, the Freestore has grown over the years to become one of Ohio’s largest food banks. The Freestore provides food to about 450 pantries in a 20-county area in the Tristate, ranging from rural Indiana to Portsmouth, Ohio.

Facilities that receive the food include pantries operated by churches, battered women’s shelters and group homes.

“We’re in business to provide food for people who need it on an emergency basis,” Young says. “When we do that, we invite a conversation about what else we can do to help people restore their lives.”

A portion of the people who use the Freestore have some type of mental illness or disability and receive Food Stamps, Medicaid or other forms of federal assistance.

Staffers set up accounts for those people and ensure that rent and utilities are paid for those who still have housing, then establish a budget for them to follow. If they need counseling or medical treatment, the staff refers them to the appropriate agencies.

The Freestore also offers the “Cincinnati Cooks!” job-training program, free 10-week culinary training for low-income, at-risk adults to aid them in finding employment in the food service industry.

Meals and snacks prepared by participants are served to children who attend the Freestore’s Kids Cafe program.

Additionally, the Freestore operates a homeless outreach program that assists chronically homeless individuals by conducting thorough assessments of their physical and mental health, personal history and employment potential.

Overall, the Freestore serves about 250,000 people each year, including roughly 110,000 in Hamilton County. About 40,000 people visit the Liberty Street facility for emergency food assistance annually.

The ambitious programs are possible due to the efforts of a staff of about 100 people, along with dedicated volunteers who offer 60,000 hours of help each year.

Funding is provided through a mix of federal grants, contributions from corporations and private foundations and from individual donations.

This year for the first time the Freestore is having a “Virtual Food Drive” for the holidays. By clicking on the organization’s Web site, anyone can use a major credit card to pay for food like fresh produce, meat and other perishable items that the Freestore can’t get through traditional food drive donations. The Freestore can also get the most bang for the buck by buying in bulk quantities at reduced prices.

As the demand for the Freestore’s services increase, so does the need for donations, Young says.

“We’re trying to keep up,” he says. “The donations have been a little bit higher each year, but it hasn’t keep up with the enormous demand. There’s been a horrendous increase in the number of people seeking help.

“The people we serve are just like everyone else. They want to feed their families a wholesome, healthy meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas. By God, let’s at least make that happen.”

For more information on the FREESTORE/FOODBANK or to make a donation, call 513-482-4500 or visit