By Sean Barron
In the past 16 years, Lillie Ekong has seen certain trends change regarding those she serves, but one thing that has remained constant has been a continuing need for certain basic necessities.
“It used to be the elderly, but now it’s more single fathers,” the Youngstown woman noted, referring to those who most-regularly visit the Victory Lutheran Community food pantry that she’s helped run since 2000.
Such demographics that tend to play out each month at the pantry, which is at the South Side church, partly reflect the larger picture of hunger in the Mahoning Valley, Ekong said during Wednesday’s 25th annual Harvest for Hunger kickoff at the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, 2805 Salt Springs Road, on the West Side.
She was among a few hundred service providers, volunteers and others who attended the one-hour program to usher in the campaign, which gets underway next month.
Harvest for Hunger is a food-and-funds drive that occurs in March and April to help fill food-bank shelves for spring and summer, when donations tend to decrease. The campaign takes place in 21 Northeast Ohio counties, including Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana.
Sponsoring the effort are The Vindicator, Giant Eagle, Cumulus Broadcasting LLC, 21 WFMJ-TV, The Vindicator’s broadcast partner, and cable channel WBCB.
Many people the Victory Lutheran food pantry serves receive government subsidies, while others have minimum-wage jobs that don’t bring in enough for them to pay their bills and for food, noted Leotha Arnold, who also helps run the pantry.
Meat products, potatoes, produce and cereal are the pantry’s most-needed items, Arnold said.
Last year, Second Harvest distributed a record 10.4 million pounds of food to the estimated 148 pantries and soup kitchens in the Valley’s three counties. Nevertheless, it’s important to see beyond the raw numbers and facts, said Mike Iberis, the food bank’s executive director.
“Behind the statistics are real people, human beings who are suffering from hunger,” he added. “Hunger doesn’t discriminate.”
Iberis praised his agency’s outreach efforts, which include fulfilling about 15,000 requests for food each week in the tri-county area. Those same efforts, however, point to a sobering reality, he continued.
“I’m proud of what we have accomplished, yet it makes you feel bad to see that much need out there,” Iberis said.
Along those lines, Harvest for Hunger raised more than $194,000 last year, noted Becky Miller, food-bank resource-development director.
To help address such a need, local Giant Eagle stores are offering a Check Out Hunger program, which allows customers to make monetary or food donations while in check-out lines. That effort helped provide more than 5,000 meals last year for those in need, noted Rich Banks, who runs Giant Eagle’s Canfield store and is Second Harvest’s board president.
Thirty-two percent of those who received assistance last year were children, so it’s imperative that more efforts are made to get the word out and give added direction to people who wish to help but may not know how to do so, said Mike Case, a broadcaster on the “WFMJ Today” program.
Case also encouraged area businesses to host their own food drives to support the effort.
Matt Spatz, program director for rock station Y-103, said the radio station often runs public-service announcements regarding the campaign. Spatz, who has four children, said it’s heartbreaking to see so many of the Valley’s youngsters impacted by hunger.
Other remarks were offered by Nena Perkins, The Vindicator’s community-events manager.