Amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley distributed an all-time record 15.6 million pounds of food in the tri-county area, surpassing its 2019 record by more than 4 million pounds, said Executive Director Mike Iberis.
On Monday, the organization thanked the Ohio National Guard members who made that happen. About 20 soldiers have been helping the food bank package, transport and distribute goods since March 2020, doubling the food bank’s manpower in the past year.
“They’ve logged approximately 40,000 man-hours since they’ve been here, which has done a yeoman’s job of making sure that there’s been food to distribute to the people of the Mahoning Valley,” Iberis said.
The food bank’s volunteer force was suspended last year, as it was made up largely of older folks at increased risk from COVID-19, he added.
“With the increase of distribution and need and the loss of all of our volunteers … we would have been totally stuck,” Iberis said.
Soldiers on Monday packaged 500 boxes with mostly shelf-stable, canned foodstuffs to be distributed this Thursday at the Canfield Fairgrounds. It’s one of the only sites where the National Guard can service hundreds of recipients in a day, said warrant officer candidate Adam Fullmer of Stark County. Their pantry’s also been to Eastwood Mall and Yankee Lake.
Planning each community pantry’s volume is the toughest part of the job, he said. The Guard planned 500 boxes for a November distribution at the Canfield Fairgrounds, but had to call in extra shipments when about 750 recipients showed up.
“The holiday season brings in a large number of people looking for help. I think Easter will have a big effect on that. That’s why they were planning on doing 500 this week,” Fullmer said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic created greater need, so did it lend itself to greater charity.
Iberis said last year’s Harvest for Hunger food drive and fundraising campaign, sponsored by Giant Eagle and Sparkle, was extended from three months to nine months. More private companies also started their own food collections, about 50 percent more than in recent years, he said.
“Without the help of the people of the Mahoning Valley, who were fortunate enough to have a little extra, some of our friends and neighbors wouldn’t get as much,” Fullmer said.
The Valley’s 160 hunger-relief programs fill more than 16,000 requests for food assistance each week, according to Second Harvest. Last year, nearly a third of those who received food assistance last year were children; nearly a quarter were seniors.
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Last year, its School Pantry Program distributed food 28,000 times to students of the 41 partnering area schools.
Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Jones on Monday was one of the Guard members manning the packing conveyor line who was from the Valley. The Youngstown man has been part of the Guard’s local food bank mission since January, distributing and transporting food boxes.
“It means a lot, definitely, coming from this community — people close to home do need the assistance [who] are probably having trouble getting the government’s assistance,” he said. “Something like this is very great. It really touches home.”
It’s “neighbors helping neighbors,” said Fullmer.
“You’re not helping some nameless, faceless person from a different part of the state. We go to the churches some of these soldiers go to. We go to the community centers that they grew up in,” he said.
The Ohio National Guard is currently expected to continue assisting the food bank through September, Iberis said.
Second Harvest’s 30th annual Harvest for Hunger campaign started last month and continues through April, to help the food bank stock up for the spring and summer months.
To start a food or funds drive for the food bank, call Julia at 330-792-5522, ext. 102, or visit the food bank’s website to download a registration form. Financial contributions also may be made to supermarket sponsor Giant Eagle and participating Sparkle Markets by donating $1, $5, or $10 at the register through April 3.
For every $1 donated to Second Harvest, the food bank distributes about $11 worth of food, or about six meals.
Last year, Harvest for Hunger raised $206,215 and collected more than 13,000 pounds of food.
If you are in need of food, call ‘211’; call 330-747-2696 in Columbiana and Mahoning counties; or call 330-393-1565 in Trumbull County.