Easing the Burden: Ohio National Guard assists with mass food distribution event for citizens in need
Story by Tech. Sgt. Shane Hughes, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs
FAIRBORN, Ohio (05/07/20)
Hundreds of cars snaked their way through the parking lot outside Wright State University’s Nutter Center recently, spilling out onto the main road for as far as the eye could see. People shouted, “Thank you for your service,” from their cars as Soldiers in camouflage fatigues walked up and down the line with clipboards, directing traffic, as other Soldiers farther down the line loaded a month’s worth of food into people’s trunks: watermelons, cabbage, onions, eggs, rice and many more essential food and pantry items.
They were lined up for assistance during a food distribution event sponsored by The Foodbank, Inc., based in Dayton, Ohio. For many of the families receiving food, this was their first time ever seeking help from a food bank. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on from weeks into months, more and more people have found themselves furloughed and without any source of income, placing them in dire need of food assistance.
“We’ve been trying to rely on family and make everything last as long as possible, but it only goes so far,” said Kelly Miller, a Fairborn resident who was laid off from her job in March.
While many Americans have lost their income or seen it reduced significantly, their bills continue to come due, leaving many families with the difficult choice of deciding how to spend the limited money they have left.
“I’m out of work and I haven’t been able to get unemployment yet,” said Courtney Wilson, a resident of neighboring Clark County. “If it wasn’t for this food drive, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills, because I’d have to spend that money on food.”
“I’m using this to fill a gap,” said Carrie Minton, a Bellbrook, Ohio resident who was recently furloughed from her job at a local health care company. “Having this food is helpful, because then I can save the money I have available to make sure my rent and utilities are paid until I can get back to work.”
In a reversal of normal expectations, Minton said her teenage daughter is the only one in her family still earning an income, because she’s considered an essential employee at a local drug store.
The economic hardships of many families have also been compounded by the lack of affordable food options due to panic buying and hoarding that has decimated store stocks all over the state and across the country.
“This is going to help us spend less on our food bill,” said Christopher Erb, a Dayton resident and father of four. “We’ve already been spending more on food, because you can’t find any of the cheap brands anymore. They’ve all gone missing.”
Others had resorted to rationing their food.
“Before this, I was only eating one meal a day,” said Mary Owens, a Dayton resident and retiree whose only income comes from Social Security. “I can’t even begin to say how much this means to me.”
It was this consistently increasing need in the community that led The Foodbank to hold the mass food distribution event for residents in the tri-county area — encompassing Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties — that it primarily serves.
“We’re responding to the pandemic by holding additional food distributions in our communities to make up for the lack of available food,” said Lee Lauren Truesdale, chief development officer for The Foodbank, Inc.
The Foodbank normally holds three mass food distribution events per year, requiring approximately 150 volunteers and 30 staff members for each event. However, the pandemic has drastically reduced the number of staff and volunteers available for these types of events. Food banks all across Ohio saw a significant drop in the number of volunteers supporting their mission due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of their volunteers, who tend to be retirees in an age group that is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, stopped showing up. The sharp increase in demand for their services, coupled with the sudden lack of volunteers to support their mission, has left food banks in Ohio — and all across the nation — in a difficult situation.
“We saw double what we would normally see at a regular distribution (event), with nowhere near the staffing support we would typically have,” Truesdale said.
Confronted with an unprecedented problem, Gov. Mike DeWine turned to the Ohio National Guard. On March 18, he signed a proclamation activating approximately 400 Soldiers from the Ohio National Guard’s 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team initially to support 12 regional food banks and warehouses, which combined serve residents in all 88 Ohio counties. Because of the significant increase in demand on food banks during the past few weeks, food bank support has grown to more than 500 Guard and Ohio Military Reserve members helping at 14 local and regional food banks.
Nearly 30 members of the 37th IBCT were on hand to help with the food distribution effort at Wright State, working in the pre-dawn hours to load military transportation vehicles with pallets of fresh food, unloading and staging food, directing traffic and loading food into the trunks of people’s cars.
“This is why I joined the National Guard,” said Sgt. Andrew Lynch, platoon sergeant with Company E, 237th Support Battalion, based in nearby Springfield. “I wanted to serve my community here at home, and things like this make me proud to put this uniform on every day. It’s been really rewarding.”
Cpl. Harold Owens, a vehicle operator assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 837th Engineer Battalion, also located in Springfield, agreed.
“I feel like I’m making a difference,” Owens said. “I don’t want to see anyone struggle and it means a lot to me that I was able to volunteer for this mission and help people get through this.”
All throughout the morning, Soldiers laughed and joked with families, providing a small sense of normalcy in a time of uncertainty. One Soldier even shared knock-knock jokes with the children in one car as it moved slowly down the line.
“The governor and the National Guard have done so much to help us out.” Wilson said. “Between the tornadoes last year (which hit Dayton and other western Ohio communities) and now this, the National Guard has really stepped in to help us a lot.”
Truesdale said more than 1,300 households totaling more than 4,500 individuals were served during the single mass food distribution event, providing food security for people in a time a desperate need.
“There’s no way we could have done this without the National Guard,” Truesdale said.
Whether distributing food to those in need or sharing moments of laughter with people in a time of uncertainty, the men and women of the Ohio National Guard are stepping up to help their communities in any way they can.