Agency's fundraising efforts trail 2017 totals as year comes to close.

December usually is the month when community support for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank hits its highest level.

But this year there is heightened concern at the food bank because donations of cash and collected food trail 2017 by about 6 percent.

Dan Flowers, president and chief executive officer, isn't sure why donations have slipped, but he hopes the gap can be closed before the year ends.

The agency is in the midst of its annual Holiday Campaign, which hopes to generate donations equal to 7 million meals. A $1 donation to the food bank can provide four meals, while a donation of 1.2 pounds of food is equal to one meal.

Events during the holiday push include the sixth annual Selfless Elf 5K run Dec. 22 and the annual Long Haul Against Hunger, in conjunction with local iHeartMedia radio stations, which last Friday generated enough donations to equal 468,000 meals.

"This is the time of the year when it counts," Flowers said, adding that he hopes communities rally to help.

GateHouse Media Ohio, owner of The Repository and eight other NE Ohio properties, also is partnering with the food bank to raise awareness among readers across the region.

"We hope our efforts to raise awareness inspires people to go to the FoodBank's website and donate immediately," GateHouse Media Ohio Group Publisher Bill Albrecht said Tuesday.

Year-round need

Since being formed in 1982, the Akron-Canton Foodbank has grown into a $40 million per-year operation, with more than $30 million of food and other items distributed last year.

The agency works with a network of more than 500 food pantries, hot-meal sites, shelters and hunger-relief programs to distribute food for families in need. That includes more than 90 groups in Stark County. Other partners are located in Summit, Tuscarawas, Carroll, Holmes, Wayne, Portage and Medina counties.

Surplus food and other essential items come in from around the country, Flowers said. The agency also collects food from more than 150 donors every week. Once collected, food is stored at the agency's warehouse in Akron until it can be distributed to partner organizations that pass it along to families in need.

Most people helped by the food bank and its partners live above the federal poverty level, which means they aren't eligible for assistance from programs such as food stamps or free meals at schools, Flowers said.

The food bank estimates that one in seven people, including one in five children, in its eight-county service area is affected by food insecurity, which refers to a U.S. Department of Agriculture measure of the lack of regular access to nutritional food for an active and healthy life. In Stark County, it's estimated that 53,880 people, or 14.4 percent of the population, are food insecure. That group includes 17,190 children.

Filling the gaps

The number of people in need hasn't dropped during the recent years of economic growth. Flowers suspects that lower unemployment levels have some potential donors believing the need for food assistance has declined. But while unemployment has dropped steadily, from 10.3 percent in 2010 to roughly 5 percent now, Ohio's poverty rate remained at 14.6 percent in 2016, according to the Ohio Poverty Report the state issued earlier this year.

"Poverty is what drives people's use of emergency food," Flowers said.

While more people are working, under-employment remains a problem. There are jobs that don't provide enough pay to cover all necessities, Flowers said. There are instances where families find themselves choosing between paying bills or buying food.

The food bank's strategy is to fill the meal gap and help families than might be missing meals, Flowers said. Support from the community is necessary to help the food bank meet that goal.

Last week's 13-hour radiothon relied upon a wide variety of supporters.

Diebold Nixdorf, ESP International and Bemis Co. were among many companies and organizations that collected food and delivered the donations to collection sites outside Giant Eagle grocery stores in Jackson Township and Fairlawn. Financial donations were matched by 415 Group, J.M. Smucker Co., FirstEnergy Foundation and Huntington Bank.

Reach Edd at 330-580-8484 or edd.pritchard@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @epritchardREP