Fighting food insecurity in rural northeast Ohio tough with few grocery stores

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 7:04 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It is a struggle for many Ohioans to continue to put fresh food on the table and even get to the grocery store.

And affordability and access to healthy food can be even tougher for people living in rural parts of the state.

19 Investigates found the pandemic made the need for help even greater.

“There were so many resources to help people, so it was just a matter of shifting from one to the other,” said Barbara Klingensmith, executive director of the Country Neighbor Program.

The program serves as the Ashtabula County Food Bank, providing food to 24 food pantries.

Bags of fresh food ready for distribution at Ashtabula County Career & Technical Center.
Bags of fresh food ready for distribution at Ashtabula County Career & Technical Center.(Country Neighbor Program)

Klingensmith remembers lines of cars stretching around parking lots in the county as families waited for food donations.

Last June and July, in the thick of the pandemic, she said they served more than 20,000 people through their “Farmers to Families” program, distributing fresh produce and dairy throughout the county.

The Ashtabula County Food Bank served 42,580 summer meals for children in just the southern part of the county in 2020.

They usually average 3,000 meals a summer.

“We’re kind of starting to go back down now, coming back to the new normal. And trying to see how we can do things differently. What do we still do the same,” Klingensmith said.

19 Investigates found before the pandemic, 15 percent of people in Ashtabula County were considered food insecure, meaning they have limited access to nutritious, affordable food.

And 6,920 households in the county depend on food stamp benefits, according to the USDA.

We found one challenge is the lack of grocery stores.

“It’s nothing for us to go 10 miles, that’s what we do,” Klingensmith said.

But that puts many parts of Ashtabula County, specifically the southern part of the county, in a “food desert.”

Research shows people who live in food deserts have less access to healthy food, which can lead to health problems like diabetes and obesity.

“It’s a struggle for some. We do have a lot of dollar stores and Dollar Generals, and so some people that’s what they have access to,” she said.

Klingensmith said just Jefferson, Andover and Orwell have grocery stores in the southern, more rural part of Ashtabula County.

“So people, that’s where they have to go and obviously some of that is more than 10 miles or 15 miles or so,” she said.

But she said they’re finding solutions.

Some measures they put place to help during the pandemic, like providing grocery shopping for seniors, will stick around.

“I will tell you wholeheartedly that Ashtabula County is very much a “can do” county. You know we help each other,” Klingensmith said.

Experts estimate the number of people “food insecure” has doubled since the pandemic began.

Under the CARES Act during the pandemic, food stamp benefits went up twice the regular amount, about a 15 percent increase for everyone.

You can read more here from the USDA on the increase in benefits that first started April of 2020.

But that benefit expires in the fall.

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