'Hunger doesn't know a zip code:' Freestore Foodbank kicks off holiday food distribution

CINCINNATI - This holiday season, many Tri-state residents will overindulge in second and third helpings, finding themselves on the sofa in full-on anaconda mode as their food digests. On the other side of the spectrum, an average of 16 percent of local families will experience a different kind of holiday, facing growling stomachs and an uncertain future.

Freestore Foodbank  in Cincinnati begins its annual December food distribution on Dec. 20. 

“About 300,000 individuals living in the 20 counties that we serve are ‘food insecure,’ and among that number about 100,000 are children,” said Sarah Cook, public relations specialist for the hunger relief organization. “Hunger doesn’t know a zip code. It exists in all counties where we live.”

Freestore Foodbank has been collecting donations to serve those in need spanning 20 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana since 1971. The nonprofit organization provides food, clothing, job training and counseling for the ‘food insecure’ in the region.

During its first day of Thanksgiving holiday food distribution Monday, the Freestore Foodbank provided food for a holiday meal to help 3,187 households and 8,037 individuals.

Number of food insecure served in 20 counties served by the Freestore Foodbank

View Map of Food Insecurity in the Tri-State.

What does "food insecure" mean?

The term "food insecure" refers to people uncertain of the origin or likelihood of their next meal, Cook explained, adding that hunger knows no boundaries in the Tri-State.

When it comes to the "typical" person receiving Freestore Foodbank's services, she said, throw out  pre-conceived notions because those in need call from all walks of life.

Cook shared the experience of a college professor living in the suburbs who found himself unemployed without the means to feed his family. She said after receiving assistance for a short time, he found another position. Out of gratitude, he immediately wrote the organization a check for $100.

“Anybody can be one paycheck away from needing help,” Cook said. “As I mentioned, the gentleman who lost his job as a professor never saw it coming and here he came from a life of having stability to suddenly not knowing what you’re going to do the next day.”

In addition to providing food to those in need, Freestore Foodback offers a number of other resources to help people get back on their feet. At the Customer Connection Center, she said clients meet with staff members to help identify their challenges and how to address them. She said they work with dozens of other local agencies to help them move toward self-sufficiency.

“People are extremely appreciative of the help they receive and often times find a way to give back in whatever way they can because they are so thankful of the generosity of others when they needed it the most,” she said.

Remember senior citizens

While many volunteers flock to serve families during the holidays, one group often goes unnoticed: the elderly, said Tracey Collins, executive director of Cincinnati Area Senior Services (CASS).  The organization relies on donations and partners with Freestore Foodbank to serve physically limited and homebound seniors.

Collins explained hunger plagues a large number of the elderly who live on fixed incomes, meaning they often have to choose whether to purchase medication or groceries.

“Unfortunately in our culture, unless there’s a crisis or something, the elderly senior in that apartment by themselves is alone during the holidays and they really do go under the radar,” she said. “They’re also very quiet and very proud and they don’t say, I need this--they’re just very quiet about it--and it’s really so sad.”

Cincinnati Senior Services

  • Serving Hamilton County
  • 5,000 clients annually
  • 347,000 home delivered meals in 2013
  • 47,000 group meals in 2013

In terms of food, Collins said seniors' requirements are far different from those of families. For example, they required smaller portions and easy to open and prepare meals. She said as part of the Meals on Wheels program, which provides a single meal per day, CASS has added a Savory Select Program which allows seniors to order their week of food with individual sides.

She explained for many, the single meal from Meals on Wheels is the only food a senior citizen may receive, so they ration that meal to last all day. As part of the new program, seniors also get a half a loaf of bread along with supplemental items such as peanut butter and jelly.

“It’s a vicious cycle for seniors, if they don’t have balanced and healthy nutrition, it impacts their health which often results in a hospitalization--and that’s where they finally get recognized,” Collins said. “That’s not where we want the intervention be, not the time of the hospitalization which is the most expensive intervention possible.”

While many volunteers offer to deliver meals for CASS, the organization also employs drivers to ensure seniors get their daily deliveries. For those wishing to help, she suggests supermarket

gift cards as the organization provides transportation to local grocery stores for those physically able.

“They can buy in the quantity they need, so they’re not wasting the food,” Collins said. ”When they’re on a fixed income, if they have a gift card around the holidays, it really goes a long way.”

Last year during its Thanksgiving and holiday food distribution periods, Freestore Foodbank served 40,652 people in need, Cook said. 

"That could have been me"

While there are plenty of volunteers to gather and  help distribute food each year during the holidays, she explained hunger lasts all year, as does the need for volunteers.

As a Freestore volunteer for the last 10 years, Cathy Eubanks felt the need to give back to the community by helping those less fortunate. She explained her experience has run the gamut, from signing people up for the Freestore’s popular Rubber Duck Regatta, to sorting and distributing food. She explained the experience hit home several years ago when a woman in her early fifties struggled to pick up her holiday food using a walker and a cart. Eubanks explained the woman was hit by a car in a crosswalk leaving her disabled and unemployed.

“She told me she never thought she would need the services of the Freestore because she worked all her life,” Eubanks said. “If it was not for the Freestore, she said she would not be eating. It really hit home, because that easily could have been me.”

People are proud, Eubanks said, so it’s difficult to ask for help. Still, she explained, the organization treats its clients with respect, and there’s a festive and joyous feel to Freestore's holiday events. For those interested in volunteering, she recommends they visit the Freestore website where they can find a multitude of opportunities.

“I always tell people, 'I may not have a lot of money I can donate, but do have time I can donate,'” she said. “Everybody has a few hours they can donate here or there.”

December Food Distribution

  • Freestore Foodbank Customer Connection Center, 112 E. Liberty St., Over-the-Rhine
  • Dec. 20, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Dec. 21, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dec. 23, 8 a.m. to noon

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