COLUMBUS, Ohio — At the onset of the pandemic, the Dublin Food Pantry saw a massive 800 percent increase in new families, then stimulus relief arrived and demand subsided to a level closer to normal. But last week, when the federal government’s $600 per week unemployment bonus expired, the pantry saw a second surge just like the first.
“We anticipate that August will be like April was for us, meaning lots of new families and lots of families who came only one time and didn't come again because then they got assistance,” said Executive Director Denise Youngsteadt-Parrish.
As officials in Washington clash over a second relief package, unemployed and underemployed Ohioans who have relied on the unemployment bonus since they lost their income now fear food insecurity as they brace for the possibility the weekly funds will be slashed or eliminated.
At the Worthington Resource Pantry, demand has similarly jumped in the last few weeks. After seeing need increase from a pre-pandemic level of 150-175 per week to 225-300 people since March, numbers started to “level off” in June, Executive Director Nick Linkenhoker said. Now, they are back up.
“Here in the last few weeks, we've jumped back up. Uncertainty is already fueling concern among our neighbors here. People don't want to be left behind,” he said. “Many of our neighbors will come back to us even before things get really tricky for them, and we're fine with that. We are very concerned about what happens in this community when those benefits expire.”
Brenda Reiter, who was picking up food on Thursday from All People's Fresh Market, a free food resource in Columbus’s South Side, said lately people in her community have been talking with each other about where they can go for free food due to the benefits expiring.
Much of her family works at an IHOP that her nephew manages, and they were all receiving unemployment insurance at the beginning of the virus outbreak. A number of her family members are still on unemployment.
This is hard time for them, she said. They still have to pay rent and support their kids but now the money has expired, at least until Congress passes a new package. Reiter said she tries to help out family members by sharing the food she picks up from the free market when she has extra. She only has to support herself, while her niece has four kids.
Yvette Rochelle, who was also picking up food from the market, has been out of work for a week. She had a job at Rally’s, a fast food restaurant, since March, but her work hours were not flexible with her responsibilities taking care of her daughter, making it impossible to continue working there.
On August 10, her daughter goes back to school at South Columbus Preparatory Academy, a tuition free K-7 school, and she will be learning online. Rochelle said she has to stay home with her and does not see how she can work a job while doing that.
She has not applied for unemployment insurance and has yet to decide if she will. She lacks a computer and worries it will be a challenge to apply from her phone. She said whether the $600 is continued or not, she would just be happy to have anything.
“Any amount would help. The $600 does sound nice, but I’m not that picky about the situation. If I decide to pursue it, whatever they give me, I will be happy,” she said. “My grandma raised me to appreciate whatever help you get. If I ask for help, whatever you can help me with is fine.”
For now, the free market offers relief to Rochelle and thousands of others like her who are in need during the pandemic.
Michael Premo, director of engagement at For All People, said the market went from seeing about 300 families per day to 400 to 500 during the pandemic. He said the market is prepared to meet the demand amid the possibility of more Ohioans soon becoming food insecure.
“We're hearing a lot about people who are concerned with what's going to happen next,” he said. “Our message is that we're doing our part. We're doing everything we can to support people in the community. What we are asking the state and the federal government to do is step up and do their part. And unfortunately, that's not happening right now. It's very concerning for the people in our community who are trying to survive,” he said.
With the possibility of the federal government stepping aside, more and more are expected to become dependent on the charity of others—like the senior citizens who Youngsteadt-Parrish said donated their stimulus checks to the Dublin pantry. “Unbelievable,” she said.
On top of unemployment benefits expiring, food pantry administrators said the July 31 sunset on the federal government eviction moratorium, reductions of operating hours for the service industry, and the news that schools will resume with e-learning in the fall will combine to create additional financial hardship for families that were living on the edge, leading more to depend on food pantries.
Republicans in Congress argue that the stimulus unemployment bonus was too generous and made it difficult to bring employees back to work. Food pantries see it differently. Many of the people who now rely on them for food, or will soon turn to pantries as benefits expire, are in fact working, but they are making little in tips at restaurant jobs or earning way less than before with Uber. Some feel working is life or death due to age or a medical condition.
Others who were eligible for unemployment and SNAP food assistance never pursued support from the welfare programs either due to fears regarding immigration enforcement or because they did not want to be a “burden on the system,” Youngsteadt-Parrish said.
Premo said his organization is holding out hope that a deal will be reached. His organization is conducting outreach to elected officials, trying to illustrate the food security crisis and the expected severity of the problem “if something isn't done and done quickly” on unemployment.