And so it began. Locally, in greater Cincinnati, our mild winter was trying to transition to Spring and we were aware of coronavirus outbreaks around the country. Sporting events began cancelling and governors began asking people to work from home. Businesses began closing, schools were suspended and a run on grocery stores limited stock and disrupted supply chains. Travel restrictions were imposed and once clogged interstate highways opened up, volunteer groups replaced by National Guard units and food banks across the nation, always quietly essential, were deemed essential organizations allowed to operate to meet emergency food assistance demands during the first full bloom of the pandemic.
At our Liberty Street Market we packed emergency food bags, created a nearly no-touch distribution while the Ohio National Guard finished packing the final Power Packs for the remaining school year and creating emergency food boxes for off-site distributions. A young woman pulled up in her car to the front of Customer Connection Center on Liberty Street, visibly upset with tear streaked cheeks, explained she had just been laid-off from her restaurant job, and said, “I have never been here before and I do not know what to do, I am worried and my family needs food.” A Freestore Foodbank team member replied, “Don’t worry, we got you. Come with me. We will take care of you.”
“Cars are backing up on Montgomery Road, “you could hear the message being passed along the chain of command. The cars arrived earlier than anticipated. And the sun was piercingly bright. The wind was lashing out the last of an arctic blast across the exposed parking lot of Norwood Plaza overlooking Xavier University at our first pandemic emergency food distribution. The Ohio National Guard rapidly deployed with Freestore Foodbank staff to set-up the area for distribution and the cars began snaking into the parking lot following the path of orange traffic cones.
Starr Pinkelton, a mother of two, lost her job at a fast-casual restaurant during the shutdown, drove across town and was in that long line of cars at Norwood Plaza. “I’m so happy to be able to pick up food,” said Starr. “It’s a lifesaver during this rough time for me and my family.”
And the pandemic emergency food distributions were repeated, often and strategically across the Freestore Foodbank service area. At St. Vincent DePaul in Northern Kentucky, as the Kentucky National Guard coordinated the long line of cars, each car containing someone just like Mary Jane and her family of four, “I appreciate the drive-up,” said Mary Jane. “It gave us some groceries to help us through. Thank you, God bless you, stay safe and I wish you peace.”
The first thing he asked was, “How did you find me?” After receiving a postcard from the Freestore Foodbank about food assistance being available during the pandemic, Jim, a 72 year old from Owen, Kentucky dialed into our Benefits Call Center. Jim knew he was struggling to make ends meet and worried about putting food on the table. He thought he would be disqualified because he did not have children. We connected Jim with his local food pantry where he filled out a SNAP benefits application. His application was approved. Jim called to inform us, “for the 1st time in a long time he was able to write out a full grocery list and purchase food instead of a few items here and there.” He was so grateful that he passed along his postcard to some members at his church.
And hope, so often hard to hold onto, is everything during a pandemic. No one is really prepared. Most folks live paycheck to paycheck. A lot of folks are a major car repair or health scare away from food insecurity. There is Jill and her family from Northern Kentucky, about to become homeless but the Freestore Foodbank provided rental assistance and now she and kids have a roof over their heads and food on their table. There is Robert and his dog Rocco from Forest Park we met an emergency food distribution in May, who said, “because of you, we might make it through all this.” There is John, who coronavirus caught and he fought off, “I came to you for help because I know you care.”
There were thousands, in cars, on foot, over the phone or email we’ve served through a crisis, too many to name them all, so many stories to tell. Sometimes you can see hope. You can see it on faces, when their car pulls forward, after snaking through a long line and the box of food and bag of produce is placed securely in their car, for a moment the worry washes away from their face, they smile and say thank you. And so it goes on. The work of the Freestore Foodbank, often quiet and unnoticed, essential, continues…