For anyone who fails to see the direct connection between an anemic economy and surging food hardship and hunger in the Mahoning Valley, a pair of credible national reports provides more than ample enlightenment.
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area ranked first in the nation in the scope of total job losses in 2017.
Then just last week, the Food Research & Action Center, a national anti-hunger advocacy group, reported that this region ranks second highest among U.S. metro areas in its degree of food hardship, food deserts and hunger.
Taken together, the reports stand as a clarion call for continued aggressive efforts on local, state and federal plains to stimulate economic revitalization for the long term and to meet the crisis needs of tens of thousands of individuals and families in our region for the short term.
The report, conducted in association with the Gallup polling organization, paints a gloomy portrait of the scope of food hardship in America at a time when in some parts of the nation, the economy sizzles.
FRAC defines food hardship as the inability to purchase needed food for individuals and family members at some point over the past 12 months. Its survey results of hundreds of thousands of interviews showed that for the first time in four years, the national rate of food hardship increased from 15.1 percent in 2016 to 15.7 percent in 2017.
But findings for the Mahoning Valley are far more bleak. They show 22 percent of all households and 34 percent of all households with children here find it difficult to afford eating regularly.
That places Greater Youngstown second only to Bakersfield, Calif., in scope of food hardship nationwide. In Ohio, the Valley’s rate stands nearly twice as high as most all other metro areas, including Akron, Cincinnati, Toledo and Columbus.
Clearly, this region cannot afford to let down its guard in efforts to reverse this disturbing trend.
LOCAL, STATE, FEDERAL INITIATIVES
At the local level, support for the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, which provided a record 10.6 million pounds of food, to those in need last year, must continue to intensify. So, too, must efforts by socially conscious organizations as ACTION [Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods] to help clear the Valley landscape of food deserts.
Food deserts are defined as areas that have limited or no access to affordable and nutritious food. Not surprisingly, Youngstown, too, ranks among the driest food deserts in the nation.
At the state level, continued subsidies to food banks remain critical, as do policies that address the food and health needs of the low-income community. Prime among them has been the expansion of Medicaid, which some heartlessly seek to gut.
At the federal level, FRAC says “it is crucial that the nation take actions that will dramatically decrease these food hardship numbers. The cost of not doing so – in terms of damage to health, education, early childhood development, and productivity – is too high.”
Among its many recommendations to lawmakers and policy-makers are creating jobs, raising wages, improving government income support programs, strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and making sure all families have convenient access to reasonably priced healthy food, including fresh fruit and vegetables.
Fortunately for Ohioans, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has demonstrated a solid commitment to those objectives. Just last week, the Democratic senator from Cleveland announced he had received word from the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food has awarded $2.2 million to Produce Perks Midwest of Ohio per the senator’s request last December.
The program matches each SNAP dollar spent at farmers markets, such as those at the B&O Station in Youngstown, with an additional dollar to spend on locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Brown, too, has been appointed to the conference committee that in coming weeks will be reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. There he vows to fight to preserve provisions that protect families from cumbersome changes in SNAP eligibility rules.
Still, Brown and fellow lawmakers likely recognize there’s no quick fix for food hardship. But that must never be used as an excuse for not doing all possible to lessen the pain and anguish the dilemma exacts so heavily on our community and our nation.