Summertime is usually a busy season for Whitney Gherman and other staff members at the Ohio State University Extension.
Last summer, the social justice educator was involved in creating an urban farm with members of Mayes Community Temple Church, as well as distributing starter plans for King’s Temple Apostolic Church on how to grow healthy food.
This year, OSU Extension provided meat for Logos Christian Ministries’ produce market on Saturday. The group plans to help other food pantries in Marion.
Supplying fresh and healthy foods for the community has long been a priority for Gherman, who specializes in food access.
“People are so stretched for childcare expenses, food expenses, medication,” she said. “We’ve seen an increase in mental health crisis over the pandemic.
“And when it comes to food, oftentimes, people are choosing between food quantity and food quality. So, we really wanted to make getting healthy quality food accessible to more people.”
Food insecurity has been a persistent issue in Marion County. This means that people do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food.
According to a 2018 report from OSU Extension, 16% of the county’s population is food insecure. In addition, a 2019 report from Feeding America stated that the child food insecurity rate was at 19.9%, or 2,740 children. Ninety-one percent of children are eligible for federal nutrition programs and the annual food budget shortfall is at $4.6 million.
Nationally, the food insecurity rate in 2019 was the lowest it had been in more than 20 years, said Feeding America, with 10.9% of people living in a food-insecure
household. However, the coronavirus pandemic brought hardships to individuals and families, as they lost their jobs or had reduced hours.
The nonprofit estimates that 45 million people, including 15 million children, may have experienced food insecurity in 2020. In addition, 42 million people may experience food insecurity this year.
Celebrate your plate
To further provide communities with healthy foods, OSU Extension is taking part in a five-year, $4 million project called Voices for Food. Extension educators will work with established food policy councils or help communities form them, according to a news release.
Voices for Food is being led by South Dakota State University and also includes land-grant university researchers in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska.
Gherman said OSU Extension in Marion County received a $15,000 grant to combat food insecurity. She and her team plan to address three areas: food pantries, grocery stores and retail and urban farming and micro farms. However, the group is just beginning to restart their plans after the pandemic put them on hold.
“Basically, what we’re trying to do across the state is help food pantries be able to offer healthier choices,” Gherman said. “Any food pantry in Marion County is eligible for funding.”
In addition to partnering with Logos, Gherman is part of a social media campaign and website called Celebrate Your Plate.
“When we were growing up, it was called the food pyramid and it’s since changed to “my plate,” she said. “We have recipes and videos on Celebrate Your Plate that people can download. We’re getting ready to launch the website in Spanish. And part of my goal for the next few years is to translate more of our materials into other languages.”
Keeping the west side healthy
On the third Saturday of every month from April to December, Logos pastor Jackie Peterson and members of her congregation come together to host a produce market. She said the church has been operating a food pantry for four years, partnering with the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.
Peterson said she is committed to keeping the community healthy, especially the west side of town.
“The west of Marion is considered a food desert,” she said. “There’s no supermarket, so the congregation and I thought it was important that we do what we can do in order to get fresh, healthy produce in the hands of this community. However, it’s not just the west side that’s being serviced, people come from all over the city.”
Peterson said the Logos market includes items like potatoes, onions, cabbage, grapes and apples. The church has served more than 2,500 people in the past four years.
Surprisingly, the market saw a decrease in need last year, despite the pandemic.
“The pandemic kind of kept people back,” she said. “People were still not ready to come out.”
However, Peterson and her volunteers were ready to resume the market last May with a drive-thru format.
“Nobody has to get out of their cars,” she said. “We register them while they’re in the car and then the workers are putting everything inside of their cars.”
The next market is August 21 from 12-2 p.m. at Logos, located at 582 Lee Street.
Offering extra support
Also hosting its monthly community produce markets is Buckeye Community School. Winnie Brewer launched the market last month at the Marion County Fairgrounds as one of her first projects as the new Nutrition Services Director.
The community produce market is a collaboration between BCS, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and Marion City Schools.
Brewer said staff members at the alternative high school serve around 250 families per market.
“In last two months, we’ve probably given away 60,000 pounds (of food),” she said.
Brewer said she has seen the need for healthy food in Marion for years as the director of food services for MCS. She believes food insecurity is a problem for the county due to people being underemployed and unable to afford healthy foods.
“While Marion is really working towards making a recovery, a lot of folks still don’t have jobs where they can make all of their ends meet,” Brewer said. “And food’s going to be at the bottom of the budget, it’s always that way.
“You gotta pay the rent, you gotta put the gas in the car to get to work, you gotta pay the electric bill. Adding that extra community support can help stretch those dollars further for folks.”
In the fall, Brewer will open a student pantry at BCS’ Marion location. She said there will be many canned and boxed food items like tuna, soups and macaroni and cheese, but that they will also have fruits, vegetables, and meat. In addition, the school will have home delivery for students at the Marion, Mansfield, and London locations.
“We’re going to ensure that they have breakfast and lunch for every school day possible, whether they’re on campus or not,” Brewer said. “And they can also eat while they’re on campus.”
Brewer said the food box will include easy to prepare dishes, along with recipe ideas. The director hopes to eventually offer cooking classes at BCS so that students can adopt a healthy lifestyle early.
“We live in an age of instant gratification,” Brewer said. “We microwave our food; we jump on Google when we want an answer to something. So, the art of cooking is starting to be lost. However, I think the pandemic and folks being home brought some of that joy back to families.”
The next BCS produce markets are July 28, August 11 and August 25 from 9-11 a.m. at the Marion County Fairgrounds.