With hunger on the rise, Northern Kentucky steps up to provide food and peace of mind

The wait for a box of food was thankfully brief on a freezing Saturday in early December.

The Generations Food Pantry’s smiling volunteers chatted with each driver, shepherding their vehicles to the food pickup station.

The Independence church has served food to 20,000 people in a drive-through system launched in March.

Carolyn Hornsby visited the food bank this chilly morning. The former Erlanger Police Department employee was laid off in March, in cutbacks related to coronavirus shutdowns. She appreciates the package of produce, meat, cheese, milk, and cereal from Generations. But it means more than that, she says.

“It just gives me peace that I can come here and get what we need,” Hornsby says.

Churches, nonprofit groups, businesses, and schools across Northern Kentucky have stepped up to help feed families, and not only at holiday time. This year will be known for the uncertainty brought by Covid-19 and related economic fallout. It will also be known for generosity.

“I think everywhere has been hit hard, you know, especially jobs that you can't work from home and you have to go in. It's been pretty devastating for folks,” says Jenny Pleiman, a volunteer at Generations, one of about 80 Northern Kentucky member organizations of the Freestore Foodbank.

Trisha Rayner, spokeswoman for the regional Freestore Foodbank, says, “We have seen over the course of the pandemic about a 50% increase in need over all of the network,” which includes 20 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

“About 75% of them have never had to use a pantry or food bank service before,” according to Rayner.

Job losses have hit hard in the retail and service industries in Northern Kentucky, says Tara Johnson-Noem, associate director for workforce at the Northern Kentucky Area Development District. “We’ve also seen some concerns in our advanced manufacturing, like for those that are in aviation.”

While national news depicts seemingly endless lines at drive-through food banks in some parts of the country, you are not likely to see mega events in Northern Kentucky. Instead, you will see churches, the Fraternal Order of Police, soup kitchens, civic clubs – hallmarks of the region’s neighborhood culture host food distribution events on any given weekend.

Master Provisions, a faith-based nonprofit connecting resources to needs, teamed up with Crossroads Church in Florence for a large Thanksgiving food drive. “It’s massive, they send out thousands of Thanksgiving meals to families,” says Guy Domec, operations director at Master Provisions.

So many groups here have taken initiative that it’s “like a blanket that covers Northern Kentucky and obviously it goes into the entire Greater Cincinnati region,” he says.

Tackling hunger during the pandemic has been daunting. Right off the bat, agencies had to deal with food and supply shortages.

“In the spring when coronavirus first hit, it was very challenging because there was just a lack of food, with the hoarding tendencies and the shelves were empty,” says Laura Dumancic, founder of GO Pantry, which packs “GO Bags” that schools give students in need to get them through the weekend.

“So, we were shopping for 700. And it was really close to impossible,” she says. On Dec. 6, GO Pantry finished collecting and packing 900 “GO Boxes.” These will be sent home with students in Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties for use over the holiday break.

Their prominence did not keep the Freestore Foodbank and Master Provisions from running into bread shortages and having to “keep an eye on how that supply chain is getting clogged up across the country,” says Rayner.

Then came the challenge of protecting employees, volunteers, and recipients from Covid-19 transmission.

Mary Rose Mission is a soup kitchen feeding the hungry and food insecure in Florence. According to founder Cindy Carris, “We have had to change many of our processes until the resolution of the Covid-19 quarantine.” Rather than providing the dine-in fellowship for which it is known, Mary Rose Mission serves drive-through carryout meals seven days a week.

Carris says her staffing is reduced because of social distancing and health considerations. The mission has also stopped accepting food donations because of safety concerns, instead purchasing just about all the food. (In fact, most of those interviewed stressed the need for cash donations this year.) Despite these changes, the soup kitchen is serving 160 people a night, a 20% increase over a year ago.

Food insecurity describes a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life, according to Feeding America. Because of the pandemic, more than 50 million people may experience food insecurity in 2020, including a potential 17 million children, the organization reported in October. An interactive map by Feeding America provides county-by-county information.

As the year draws to a close, many families must make hard decisions about which bills to pay, says Tammy Weidinger, president and CEO of the Brighton Center in Newport.

Do I pay my rent? Or do I buy food for the family?

“The fact that people are losing hours and being laid off or furloughed impacts their ability to pay the bills and household (expenses). One of the things that we try to work with families on is use your cash to pay your rent and utilities or your house payment … and then let us help you with food, because we have food, we can help you with food,” Weidinger says.

Hunger is part of a cycle of poverty often felt most acutely by Northern Kentucky’s children.

“Inferior, unloved, afraid,” Dumancic of GO Pantry says of the cycle. “All of those things lead to a child struggling in so many different ways -- behavioral, emotional, psychological. And it becomes really hard to pull out of that poverty cycle.”

So, the GO Bags sent home for the weekend not only provide food for the child, but can provide security, Dumancic says.

”It can help them to have enough faith and hope that they can pull out of that cycle.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.