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Freestore Foodbank: It Could Be Years Before Pandemic Need For Food Assistance Dwindles

Early during the pandemic, drone footage outside of a Freestore Foodbank's mass distribution site showed lines of cars stretched down roadways. A surge of people, many of whom were facing food insecurity for the first time, waited for boxes with pantry staples. Since then, over 600 pantries in the Tri-State have provided almost 38 million meals, and the need for more food availability hasn't dwindled much.

Two and a half million of those meals were distributed last year at the Liberty Street pantry in Over-the-Rhine,where 57-year-old Kenneth Gilbert selected a few items off of shelves last week.

Gilbert says he has four chicken legs in his freezer, peanut butter and jelly, a few canned goods and ramen noodles in his Westwood apartment. His budgeted $814 from social security and disability benefits ran out this month. And when a caseworker didn't show up to help him get to the food bank, as promised, he knew he'd have to take the hourlong bus ride to the Freestore Food Pantry on Liberty Street.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
If he doesn't have a ride to the food bank, Gilbert has to walk his food nine blocks to catch his bus home.

After collecting his groceries, he rearranges some of the heaviest items -- placing some in his backpack and leaving the rest in two paper bags. He carries them almost two blocks when he hears a rip as he's crossing a street.

"The bag broke, this one broke too. Aw, man. Both of the bags broke." 

One had split nearly in half. The handles, almost simultaneously, ripped off the other.

First-time Needs For Families And The Food Bank

Gilbert is like a lot of people who go to food pantries. He goes once every two or three months when he can't quite make his money stretch to the end of the month. But he tries not to have to go because, logistically, it's a hassle.

In addition to those torn bags, he has to walk over 30 pounds of food nine blocks to catch his bus home.

But Gilbert is still grateful for the help from the pantry because he needs it. He uses the onions, spinach and juice he picks out to supplement the groceries he is able to buy.

"I ain't got no complaints. I get free food," he said. "I appreciate it, appreciate what they're doing. They've been here a long time."

President and CEO of the Freestore Foodbank, Kurt Reiber, says the organization was providing 27.5 million meals to people in 2018. He says 2020 was much different.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
Freestore Foodbank CEO Kurt Reiber.

"We have seen almost a 60% increase in demand," he said. "And these are families that have never had to set foot in one of our pantries." 

That is not how he says new families tend to go to the food bank for the first time. Usually, they're in need after something interrupts their budget, like if a car needs a major repair.

"What we saw with a pandemic, is that everybody had that just exacerbated, they got to the point where they're saying, 'I can't make ends meet,' " he said. "When two-thirds of our families have to decide, do I put a roof over my head? Or do I buy food? Do I buy medicine? Or do I buy food? Those things aren't going to change overnight."

The increased need put a strain on the food bank. They lost the power of 13,000 volunteers who had to stay home because of the pandemic. And food donations dropped by almost 50% in the past 12 months. But they've been able to pivot for now, though. For instance, the Ohio National Guard is helping out until this fall. And there's some government funding they've been able to use to buy more food.

"Last year, our fiscal year, we did about just under 38 million meals; this year on target to do over 50 million meals," he said.

'What's Next?'

But right now, there's a hangover effect happening as people go back to school and work. They may come to the pantry less often, but he predicts it will be a while before some can bounce back. The last time the food bank saw a spike like this was during the 2008 and 2009 recession, and it took almost a decade before the need fell to pre-recession levels.

"So right now, in a time period that we would have spent about $800,000 on food, we spent well over $4 million on food," he said.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU

But that's not sustainable. So food bank employees work to ease people's reliance on their resources. Clients connect with agencies for rental assistance, job training and free health care. There are also free clothing options.

While the Freestore Foodbank won't be running out of food any time soon, Reiber says now is the time for businesses, the government and the community to figure out how best to help people in the coming months. 

"So our challenge right now is to tell this community, to say, OK, what's next? What are we going to do?"

Reiber says the Freestore Foodbank is at the end of a capital campaign to get a bigger storage facility with more room for food distribution and workforce training.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
Freestore Foodbank CEO Kurt Reiber says the organization is currently fundraising for a bigger storage facility with more room for food distribution and workforce training.

For more information about services and locations, visit the Freestore Foodbank website.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.