Ohio National Guard members are working at three Southwest Ohio food banks, stepping into the roles normally filled by volunteers. Governor Mike DeWine activated the Guard last week in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Soldiers are working at pantries in 12 Ohio counties, including Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield, the Dayton Foodbank and Cincinnati's Freestore Foodbank. They're authorized to work for the next 30 days.
"We typically see about 13,000 volunteers at the Freestore Foodbank. With all of the changes and the social distancing that has been recommended … we aren't able to have those volunteers come help us," says Trish Rayner, vice president of external affairs for the Foodbank.
Rayner says troops are packing boxes of food and supplies for distribution through the Liberty Street Market. It's usually a place where people can shop for what they need. "We're now using it for emergency food distribution, so when customers come in they will be able to receive a box of grocery items for them as they walk through to eliminate exposure for not only our staff, but also for themselves."
The Freestore Foodbank supports food kitchens, emergency pantries, homeless shelters, social service agencies and programs in 20 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Raynor says many of those outlets increase their orders, anticipating a rush.
"We're starting to see people who never have been to a food pantry or visited us at Liberty Street Market before," Rayner says. She believes the rise is due to a high number of people suddenly furloughed due to the closure of restaurant and bars. "We think that's going to increase over the course of this crisis. So we're just being prepared to not only have our Ohio National Guard help pack boxes but also help us take orders for our agencies."
Rayner says the Freestore is concerned about decreased supply as demand increases. "We're working feverishly with all of our local retails and vendors to try to get product into the warehouse. We typically see food donations from large vendors that have dried up. We see donations and rescue products from our local retail grocers, those have dried up, too. So, we are having to expend resources to purchase those items, and those items actually have a longer lead time for them to get here."
She says a skeleton staff of Freestore employees are helping the Guard members with the packing, and volunteers have been sent home. "We've gone to a virtual food drive just based upon the fact we don't want people going to their local grocers and cleaning the shelves off. They're already having a hard enough time stocking the shelves," she says. "We are in desperate need of resources financially to help purchase food because our donations are not coming in."