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Why Are So Many Food Charities Shutting Down In Ohio?

CREDIT: PRNEWSFOTO/FOOD LION
CREDIT: PRNEWSFOTO/FOOD LION

As the Thanksgiving season starts, Ohio’s food charities are in rocky shape. About 40 food pantries in the state have been forced to close down or merge with another outfit in the past 16 months.

Despite the closures, Ohioans can still turn to more than 1,700 individual food pantries around the state. But the contraction in food charities’ presence is a reminder of how precarious the nation’s volunteer-driven anti-hunger efforts are these days. Demand for help putting food on the table far too often outstrips the supply of resources to food banks.

One in every six food charities nationwide fears that such resource shortfalls will force it to close down, according to the last quadrennial assessment of American food charities by national network Feeding America. That report in 2014 also found that nearly a quarter of all the food distribution agencies connected to Feeding America had to reduce service in the previous year, mostly by cutting back hours or putting new geographic restrictions on their service area.

Comprehensive data is hard to come by, but anecdotes that underscore the charity operators’ fear are abundant. A Newark, NJ food pantry is closing down later this year because the church facility that’s housed it for years is being sold. The sole food bank for all pantries in Westchester County, NY is having to make do without about 70,000 pounds of food and more than $20,000 in gifts previously contributed each year by area A&P; stores, whose parent company has gone bankrupt. The Grace House in Fort Valley, GA is bracing to cut 200 families off its service list of 500 if resources don’t bounce back soon. Two of the largest food banks in the San Diego area are merging to stave off a financial death spiral that’s afflicting one of them.

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It can be hard to pin down the specific triggering event for any given food charity’s decision to close or cut back. But the wave of closures and mergers in Ohio may have a straightforward genesis.

Charity officials think the closures stem from a decision Gov. John Kasich (R) made in late 2013, the Columbus Dispatch reports. Kasich declined a federal waiver that would’ve slightly softened the eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), deciding instead to reinstate full work requirements for the program even though Ohio’s economy was still poor enough to trigger a more relaxed form of work rules.

“There is a clear relationship between food-pantry use and SNAP eligibility,” a Columbus food pantry director named Brad Draper told the paper. “If it becomes harder to qualify for SNAP, obviously that generates greater demand.” State officials dispute the claim that the change is knocking people off of SNAP, arguing that everyone who complies with the new rules gets to keep their benefit.

But Kasich’s policy made work rules for food stamps inconsistent across the state, with applicants in Ohio’s most densely-populated counties facing higher eligibility hurdles than those in rural areas. That disparate treatment has prompted outcry from civil rights groups who say Kasich is targeting the state’s mostly-urban black community.

Overall, Ohio’s SNAP enrollment is down by about 115,000 since the start of 2014. Much of that change is due to improvements in the overall economy, which have been gradually pushing food stamps enrollment trends back down as the recovery grinds ahead. But some significant share likely owes to Kasich’s decision. In Franklin County, for example, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks estimates that about 2,500 food stamps recipients lost their benefits in the first year after the shift.

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The group’s report on Franklin County details the specific hurdles this population, known as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, faces to finding work. Nearly a third of the group never finished high school. Just 40 percent have a valid driver’s license. Over a third have a felony conviction on their record.

Missing an appointment or failing to respond to correspondence from the state can be grounds for terminating an able-bodied adult’s food stamps under this policy. The group targeted by Kasich’s policy in Franklin County is a very transient population, with clients frequently reporting a change of phone number (about half the time) or address (about a third) upon their second assessment by a food charity worker trying to help them follow the rules.

These factors make it likely that well-meaning people will get boxed out of food assistance they desperately need based on technicalities and misfortune, rather than because they refuse to make the kind of effort the work rules demand. Despite that risk, Kasich’s approach has gained traction with several other governors. Indiana, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Maine, Delaware, Colorado, and others have reinstated their full work rules even though the federal government deemed their economies weak enough to justify waiving the requirements.

Nationwide, as many as a million people could lose their food stamps over the coming year as the economy improves and the waivers dry up.