By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
At a time when state and federal legislators are sharpening their budget knives, more Ohio families need government help to put food on the table.
A federal report this month showed that more than 71,000 additional Ohio households struggled with getting enough to eat between 2008 and 2009.
About 6 percent of Ohio households one in every 16 reported extreme hunger conditions such as running out of food without money to buy more, going a whole day without eating and losing weight because they couldn't afford food.
The national average was 5.2 percent.
The grim economy has sent families once capable of feeding themselves to government programs such as school lunches and food stamps, while food banks distribute government purchased food.
''Our numbers are going up dramatically,'' said Candy Lorkowski, chairman of Tallmadge Good Neighbors and president of Summit County Good Neighbors. ''I'm one of the smaller units and we're feeding over 200 people a month. We used to only feed like 45 people a month.''
The cause of the strain on area hunger programs isn't hard to find.
Since the recession began in December
2007, Ohio has seen a net loss of nearly 400,000 jobs a 7.4 percent drop. Summit and Portage counties, which make up the Akron Metro Area, were hit harder, losing 8.6 percent or 29,000 jobs.
As jobs disappeared, incomes dropped, resulting in growing poverty. In the Akron Metro Area, median household income was $47,482 in 2009 $2,364 less than a year earlier.
During that same period, the individual poverty rate climbed from 12.1 percent to 14.7 percent. The Canton-Massillon Metro Area saw the same jump in poverty.
Akron Public Schools has noted a sharp increase in the number of students in sixth through 12th grades applying for free and reduced-price lunches, said Laura Kepler, coordinator of Child Nutrition Services.
A family of four making almost $41,000 qualifies for reduced price meals, which cost 40 cents. A family of four making almost $29,000 a year qualifies for free lunches.
''You have working families with some income or their income is not as great or they're underemployed or they've lost overtime from cutbacks,'' Kepler said. ''A lot of people unemployed for the first time have come in and received benefits.''
In the 2005-2006 school year, 61 percent of households that submitted meal applications for sixth through 12th grades qualified for free and reduced-price lunches. This school year, about 75 percent qualified.
Kepler estimates those percentages could be 10 percent higher if elementary school kids in kindergarten through fifth grade were included. But those buildings provide free lunch to all children and have not collected meal applications since the 2003-2004 school year.
No snow day for hunger
Free breakfasts also are provided at all Akron schools before school starts, serving 9,000 meals daily, as well as 3,100 after-school snacks a day.
''There's just a high participation rate and it's almost 100 percent in some buildings,'' Kepler said. ''We've had kids show up for breakfast on snow days.
''One of the little girls said, 'I come to breakfast because then we have more food at home.' That's what sort of hits home.''
More families are finding it difficult to stretch their food budget until the end of the month.
The monthly food-stamp allotment typically runs out after almost three weeks for the people coming to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, according to a national study, Hunger in America 2010.
The food bank serves nearly 180,000 people each year and about half report having to choose between buying food and paying for utilities.
Last year, the food bank distributed 18.7 million pounds of food, and so far this year has topped that figure by a million pounds.
The food bank is one of the most cost-effective nonprofit organizations in the area, with food distribution and other services accounting for more than 94 percent of its expenditures, according to its federal tax return.
''Today we brought a $5.1 million budget to our board for approval,'' said President Daniel Flowers on Monday. ''Well, almost all of that money is coming from local donations.''
Flowers said the local donations are vitally important because ''about half the food we distribute at the food bank is going to be funded through federally and state-funded programs.''
But without local contributions to pay for distribution, the food bank wouldn't get the government-purchased food.
''If this community didn't make a decision to support its food bank, then that food could just as easily go somewhere else.''
On Monday, the Good Neighbors Food Pantry in Goodyear Heights was packing some of that government food when Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, stopped by.
The front room of the pantry was packed with families waiting for groceries.
Brown sat down around a small table in the back with Flowers and other food bank staff members and Good Neighbors volunteers.
Flowers asked the senator who chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Hunger, Nutrition and Family Farms what they could do to advocate for the poor when budget crunchers in Washington and Columbus may be seeking savings out of safety-net programs.
''Get them out to see what you're doing,'' Brown advised.
''A lot of these new people who ran for Congress, they have an ideology that government is always the problem. They can think that, fine. Most people in Congress never really meet a lot of people that are hungry or a lot of people who just got foreclosed on or a lot of people who've got to tell their 12-year-old daughter, 'Honey, we're going to have to move because we're getting thrown out of our house.' ''
Brown asked those around the table: ''Any of you ever know hunger, personally?''
George Camilletti, the pantry's co-manager, said he had.
''I grew up in West Virginia,'' he said. ''My father was sick and my mother made dresses and that's all we had for income. We made do. We were Italian. We had an extended family, a big support system.''
''Is that a difference now?'' Brown asked.
''Oh, yeah. There's no support system out there between families,'' said Camilletti, a retired investigator with the IRS.
Beacon Journal computer-assisted reporting manager David Knox contributed to this report.