Mid-Ohio Food Collective President and CEO Matt Habash recently stared into his warehouse and saw a nightmare scenario for any organization tasked with providing food for those in need: empty rack after empty rack.
The sight was in stark contrast to the abundance the food bank had available when COVID-19 raged around the globe and right here in Greater Columbus.
Food insecurity during the height of the pandemic and food insecurity now are two different beasts.
The knights that fight them in battle will have to be different too.
"What we knew was coming on the horizon was all this (federal) government food," Habash told our editorial board. "Here we are today, and we don't see any horizon where there's food coming and the numbers (of needy) are much, much higher than they were during the pandemic."
Gov. Mike DeWine and state lawmakers should be rushing in to help solve a problem made worse by inflation, gas prices, the affordable housing crisis, child care and supply chain issues sparked by the pandemic.
After all, they are sitting on the money.
A fraction of the $1.9 billion Ohio received under the American Rescue Plan Act would go a long way in feeding Ohio families.
More nightmare scenarios on the horizon
There were volunteer and logistics issues during the pandemic, but supply was never an issue for Mid-Ohio Food Collective, a nonprofit that has its own food pantry and supplies food to soup kitchens, after-school programs and pantries run by 680 partner agencies in Franklin and 19 Ohio counties.
There is more inventory at the food bank now than the day Habash looked out and saw those empty racks, but he says he remains more "nervous" about food than he has been in his 38 years with the collective.
The problem keeping Habash up at night is clearly not just a Franklin County or Columbus issue.
It is a statewide crisis that should be top of the agenda for both DeWine and the Ohio General Assembly.
All too real nightmare scenarios are already playing out at smaller food banks.
"Our friends (at the Southeast Ohio Food Bank) have cut down (on food provided) and they actually closed a lot of their distribution points because they don't have enough food," Habash told us. "That's going to start rippling more and more across the state because there's just not enough supply to meet that demand."
Feeding America estimates that 1,351,090 Ohioans are dealing with hunger. Among them are 412,670 children.
With the COVID-related expansion to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) ending, seniors are expected to soon represent nearly a quarter of all Ohio food pantry visitors, Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging Chief Policy Officer Beth Kowalczyk wrote in a recent letter to the editor.
Mike Hochron, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective's senior vice president of communications, told our board that demand for his agency's food is up 21% this year to date over 2021.
The collective served 661,603 people in that time period. Just shy of 98,000 of those people sought help for the first time, a nearly 30% increase over 2021.
About 67% of them live in Franklin County.
"We're in uncharted waters when it comes to the number of our neighbors that need help," Hochron told us.
It is time for Gov. DeWine and lawmakers to rescue hungry Ohioans
But that won't help meet the need for emergency food.
Money from the campaign is restricted for a list of initiatives that includes the Mid-Ohio Markets, Mid-Ohio Farm, and Mid-Ohio Kitchen and cannot be used for this food shortage crises.
Hochron and Habash say the community is very supportive of the collective's work and donations from retail partners such as Kroger, Walmart and Amazon remain strong.
The collective used $1 million from its general fund to purchase emergency food.
Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin announced Tuesday that the city had approved $1 million, and the collective is optimistic Franklin County commissioners will approve its $1.5 million request.
That money is just a Band-Aid.
It is beyond time DeWine and Ohio legislators step up to help Ohioans facing food insecurity — particularly children and seniors.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks which represents 12 regional food banks and 3,700 food pantries, soup kitchens, and hunger relief programs has asked the governor and legislature for an emergency $50 million from that remaining $1.9 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds given to the state.
Mid-Ohio Food Collective — the state's largest food bank — would get about 20% of those rescue dollars.
Families are living on edge
The help is needed here especially with federal programs and enhancements such as the Child Tax Credit ended, ending or being rolled back.
The unemployment rate is low in Columbus as it is throughout much of the nation, but that does not mean people are making money hand over fist.
Habash told us that the bulk of those served by his agency have a job. Many have multiple jobs.
"These are people that are trying. These are people that are working," he said. "We get all these new families living on the edge."
Seeking food from a pantry is often the last resort.
As the saying goes, rent eats first.
The median rent in Columbus increased by 16.9% between May 2021 and May 2022, according to the rental site Dwellsy. That is a hike of $177 a month. The median rent was $1,222 in June.
Add Greater Columbus' affordable housing crisis to increased fuel and food costs, supply chain issues, the cost of childcare and inflation that saw a 40 year high in June and other economic issues exacerbated by the pandemic and it is no wonder the collective is seeing record demand.
Food banks are in a pinch
In April, Feeding America — which represents the collective and thousands of other food banks and partner agencies — reported that food banks are paying 40% more for the same amount of food they bought in 2021.
The amount of food the collective has gotten from the United States Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program is down 51% from 24 million pounds to 11.6 million pounds.
The variety of product has been reduced and shipments are less reliable. Over the past year, 73 needed USDA deliveries the Mid-Ohio Food Collective needed and expected were canceled.
States can use the American Rescue Plan dollars to respond to a broad range of "needs" brought on by the pandemic and its impact.
If ensuring seniors, children and other Ohioans don't go to bed hungry does not fit the definition of need, we don't know what does.
This is an opportunity for the governor and state lawmakers to rescue Ohioans living far too close to the edge.
This piece was written by the Dispatch Opinion Editor Amelia Robinson on behalf of The Dispatch Editorial Board. Editorials are our board's fact-based assessment of issues of importance to the communities we serve. These are not the opinions of our reporting staff members, who strive for neutrality in their reporting.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Editorial: Ohio should use $50 million from rescue fund for hunger