Answering the Call
Putting food on the table is a challenge in Southeastern Ohio food deserts, but access to healthy foods is another obstacle
Story and visuals by Nate Swanson
Beyond the trees of Radar Hill, the City of Athens peeks between the branches behind the sun setting below the rolling hills of Southeastern Ohio.
Hamburger Skillet boxes top off bags of food packaged for patrons at the River of Life Church.
Part II: Bridging the Gap
At the ACEnet building, CFI distributes food to the general public and anyone collecting items for food pantries in Athens County and beyond.
CFI hands off locally-grown pie pumpkins to patrons who visit their scheduled distribution days at ACEnet.
Ivan Orquera and Ravi Harley patiently wait in the cool autumn weather in Coolville, Ohio, for interested customers and patrons to browse the selected produce and leave an optional donation in return.
One of the primary foundations to life is the food we eat on a daily basis. When it’s possible, humans have a natural desire to search for the freshest, most quality food available. By instinct, we crawl for the best food that can serve its purpose, and that is to satisfy our bodies and minds with a balanced, nutritious diet to fulfill one of life’s basic necessities in order to survive: to eat. Throughout human history, we have relied on the production and consumption of food to maintain a healthy diet in order to live a long life. As the world evolved, government and economic policy has played determining factors in limited access to such food for individuals in certain regions. In the year 2020, there were 38.3 million people in the United States living in households experiencing food insecurity; approximately 11.5 percent of the U.S. population. Throughout history, famines have plagued humankind due to conflicts, crop failure, government inaction, economic policy, as well as accessibility limitations just for food to make it to the table. In 2012, the Food Assistance Convention became the first international legally-bound treaty on food aid adopted and signed by fourteen countries, including the United States, to ensure vulnerable populations around the world receive the assistance needed where food access has been extremely limited due to conflict and climate shocks. In the year 2020, the U.S. provided nearly $4.8 billion in aid to more than 71 million people in 57 countries. This whopping amount of aid cited in the International Food Assistance Report for the Fiscal Year 2020 Report to Congress keeps the U.S. as a top contributor to the FAC treaty, but when it comes to food assistance to its own citizens, there continues to be issues.
The U.S. has its unique approach to food assistance. At the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March of 2017, the U.S. voted “no” on the resolution to recognize a State’s obligation for one’s right to food. A statement released by the U.S. Mission Geneva responded to its controversial vote, stating how “Domestically, the United States pursues policies that promote access to food, and it is our objective to achieve a world where everyone has adequate access to food, but we do not treat the right to food as an enforceable obligation.”
The U.S. response also outlined various reasons defending their vote, stating how the resolution's outline and language influenced its decision voting not to recognizing a right to food, yet assured they advocate for its policies providing adequate access to food. The federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps provide financial assistance to low-income people for purchasing food. However, all fifty states are allowed to administer SNAP in their own ways under federal law. An annual USDA State Options Report outlines recommendations as to how states administer the benefits, and the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which has been outdated for 45 years, received a modernized revision in August 2021 increasing the amount of money SNAP recipients need based on their income to meet their daily food intake. In the State of Ohio, a $40 monthly increase was added for one and a half million Ohioans. But the long-awaited revision of the Thrifty Food Plan comes at a time when food prices have soared since its initiation in the 1970s. In contrast, consumers won’t often purchase in bulk, but instead choose items solely based on convenience, such as canned, frozen or processed items; foods that last and are sold for immediate consumption.
The monthly issuance of SNAP benefits has increased, but how one chooses to spend it has been set in stone prior to the revision. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, shoppers who were panic-buying resorted to items that one can find in a fallout shelter: canned goods. The instinct to go for processed and canned goods has already been the way–it’s what people know best based on its convenience.
In Athens County, where 17.7 percent of Ohio families live under the poverty line and 15.6 percent of its households are food stamp recipients, one fifth of all residents are food insecure, and one third of the children are estimated to be facing food insecurity, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Community Health Rankings cited in the 2020 Athens County Health Assessment. The report also conducted primary data collection through focus groups and community-wide surveys throughout Athens County. When asked about inadequate daily servings of fruits and vegetables, 14.3 percent answered saying it takes too much time or effort to prepare; 13.2 percent responded saying the food is unpalatable; 3 percent said it is too difficult to obtain and, in terms of servings, only 1.5 percent of residents report having ate five or more servings of fruit a day, with 8 percent eating five or more servings of vegetables a day.
34.2 percent of Athens County residents answered saying these foods are too costly.
The fight for accessing these servings of fruits and vegetables, rounding out a balanced, nutritious diet made up of whole, healthy foods, does not falter in Athens County despite the assessment results. Community efforts and mutual aid has been organized to bridge the gap for those whose circumstances simply do not allow for their access to the right foods to eat in order to live a healthy lifestyle. Right outside of Athens County, the Chesterhill Produce Auction in Chesterhill, Ohio, attracts buyers throughout its biweekly events, where locally-grown produce is sold in bulk for much lower prices than one finds in the supermarket or closest grocery store. While interacting with farmers, home-owners and anyone looking for a bargain, organizations such as Community Food Initiatives take advantage of the bulk produce to find creative ways to distribute it to cities and townships in Athens County.
"We buy produce from the auction and we also have the donation station there so we can collect donations,” says CFI Food Access Coordinator Ravi Harley. “We usually serve sixteen and twenty pantries a week. We do distributions in McArthur, Bishopville, we do Veggie Van in Glouster and then all the way in Coolville. . . we try and do as much of Athens County as we can do and sometimes a little bit beyond that.”
The Veggie Van, a vehicle designed to be a mobile market bringing the local produce into pop-up stands around Athens County is one of CFI’s recent projects, coordinated by Ivan Orquera, who takes the wheel and helped pilot the program in 2020 to distribute fresh produce in areas where grocery stores or markets are scarce, coining the term “food desert.” In such locations, access to the whole, healthy foods needed for a balanced diet are out of reach for many community members, who then have to turn to options geared toward conveniency, such as getting food from a Family Dollar or the local food pantry, where ready-made food packages may not be guaranteed to have the healthiest options available.
That is why Betsy Anderson, Executive Director of Serenity Grove, a level two transitional women’s recovery center in Athens, Ohio, hustles to CFI’s scheduled distribution at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, otherwise known as ACEnet, where food is distributed to the general community.
“The delightful things that we are sometimes getting from CFI happen to be things that often cost a little more if we were to have to go to the grocery and pay full price,” Anderson explains. She chooses her words carefully when talking about the topic. Food insecurity is not uncommon in the Appalachian city in Southeastern Ohio, where Ohio University students in Athens live on the same battleground as those who are going to some of the same stores as they are and who are also renting out the cheaper properties available. While one half may not have to think twice about their day-to-day expenses, another half has to think of a domino effect if one thing happens, potentially impacting another.
Natalie Hoffman, a single mother who has been working at Serenity Grove since September of 2021, was offered the job she’s in through a contact she knew through a diversion program she partook in at the Athens County prosecutor’s office. Shawn Stover, a Reentry Program Coordinator with Athens County Job and Family Services, saw how much Hoffman has grown since her past riddled with substance addiction.
Hoffman was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and by the time she was 21, was prescribed narcotics and by 22, was on 180 milligrams of Oxycodone a day, opening up her use of stronger substances like Methamphetamine, crack and heroin. She soon found herself on the streets of Columbus and losing custody of her two children along the way.
“Whether it was raining, or storming, barely eating. Really no connection with my family. My husband, who has since passed, and my daughter, my son lived with his grandparents, who had lost many years before that,” Hoffman recalls.
“I just let everything get out of control and didn't want to deal with anything. And then one day I woke up and no matter how high I got, I couldn't forget all the things that I had done and my children I left behind.”
Hoffman has flourished since these days, and on January 13 in 2022, she will have been two years sober from every substance she has used. Now, Hoffman’s eight year-old daughter, Abby, lives with her in their home in The Plains, Ohio, where she drops her off at school throughout the week and drives over to Serenity Grove one town over to help drive some of the women living at the recovery house to their jobs during the day. Like herself, Hoffman wants to help the friends she has made at Serenity Grove provide structure in their lives, many of whom have come out of a rehabilitation center or off of a prison sentence.
“They're relearning how to live and that's a lot of things–that's interacting with people and learning how to have a conversation, getting a job, eating well, going to grocery store, knowing how to budget money, getting a bank account.”
Along with that mindful structure to set up in one’s life comes mindfulness with the food that is brought home, prepared and consumed. Betsy Anderson and Hoffman encourage trips to the Athens Farmers Market, where SNAP dollars can be doubled and exchanged with tokens used there, allowing for a surplus of healthier, local food to be brought home.
On days when the farmers market isn’t an option, Walmart, Kroger and Aldi are the grocery hubs where, despite her home in The Plains, the nearly ten minute drive, and oftentimes longer with traffic, leads Hoffman to Aldi, where she prefers to get her groceries from despite living down the road from Piggly Wiggly.
“Better prices, better food, better produce, cleaner store. . .you go down there [Piggly Wiggly] and for one meal you’re going to spend about seventy bucks.”
In contrast, Hoffman claims she can get three or four meals at Aldi for that same price.
“You think about the people who don’t have transportation, because they have to go there nine times out of ten. So, once you do get a ride into town to Save A Lot or Aldi, you’re really budgeted at this point because you’ve spent your food stamps at Piggly Wiggly."
The meal Hoffman and Abby made together that evening was chicken fajitas made with ingredients purchased at Aldi the day prior. Tin foil lining the pan releases steam from around the edges while the chicken and peppers simmer in a sauce she let Abby pick out the herbs and spices for. Hoffman knows how to budget herself while thinking of Abby as well, but buying food for two is a new task among many she must face in her life while always having to think about others as much as her own.
“My income could go up to the point where I can’t get food stamps anymore and one day that will happen,” Hoffman reassures. At this point, Abby is full from dinner and has helped clean some cooking utensils, now lounging on their sofa curled up with her book.
“I promise you that, because I’m not stopping where I’m at.”
Hoffman leans against the arm of the couch she lounges on while listening to Charity go about her day on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
In the reflection of a TV screen, bright window light and the warm twinkles of a Christmas tree inside Serenity Grove form a hazy color combination together.
A framed photo of Natalie in her twenties holding her children while they are toddlers. Dylan was born when Natalie was just seventeen years-old.
Color-coded reminders are marked on a whiteboard calendar for easy accessibility inside Serenity Grove, where the orange-colored notes are written by Natalie.
Dee (back) a woman residing at Serenity Grove, laughs with Natalie (front) while talking with Charity.
Hoffman exhales vapor from her nicotine vape cartridge before driving Ashley home from Serenity Grove.
A quick shopping trip at Kroger allows for Natalie to get a few items she needs to hold herself over throughout the week.
Next to fellow Aldi customers, Natalie packs her purchased food in her reusable bags after shopping with Abby.
With barren trees rolling along State Street behind Natalie Hoffman, she loads her grocery bags into the trunk of her borrowed car, finishing another day of shopping at Kroger.
Charity, a woman living in Serenity Grove, holds two slices of provolone cheese with the left slice from the Walmart deli and the right slice from the Kroger deli counter. Both supermarkets are located on East State Street in Athens, Ohio, but deli quality varies among the store chains. With a one dollar price difference, the Walmart slice is dry and covered in spots, in contrast to the fresh-looking Kroger slice.
Part I: The Scope
Part III: No Days Off
While Abby is assigned to chop the bell peppers, Natalie sprinkles in taco seasoning to prepre for their chicken fajitas dinner.
Seasoned chicken and vegetables simmer over a gas stovetop.
Natalie serves the food prepared together to Abby at their kitchen table in their home within The Plains, Ohio.
Natalie and Abby eat together, drawing a moment of togetherness over hearty food on paper plates while drinking from water bottles on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Inside their trailer home in The Plains, Natalie preps food for dinner while Abby, 8, reads from her comic books on the couch just outside the kitchen.