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More rural, suburban Ohioans turning to government for help with food

By Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Medina High School senior Megan Wolfgang fills shopping bags for a client at the Medina Methodist Church Food Pantry. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)
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Ohioans living in rural and suburban counties are turning to the government for food assistance in record numbers — and demand has grown even after the Great Recession ended.

The number of people receiving help skyrocketed 71 percent over the past five years in nonurban counties, areas that traditionally haven’t relied on welfare programs, according to a Beacon Journal analysis of Ohio Department of Job and Family Services data.

Twenty-two rural and suburban counties saw food assistance rolls — once known as food stamps and now called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — more than double over that time.

That includes three of the state’s wealthiest counties: Geauga, Medina and Warren.

“It’s a necessity at this point for tens of thousands of families who have no other access to anything else,” said Raymond Cox III, a public administration, urban studies, geography and planning professor with the University of Akron’s Department of Public Administration and Urban Studies. “They don’t work enough. They don’t make enough or they are unemployed.”

Overall, 1.7 million state residents — slightly more than one out of every 10 people in Ohio — received $2.9 billion in food assistance in the last fiscal year, which ended in June. The number of recipients statewide grew by 686,825 over the past five years, a 64 percent increase.

And despite the Great Recession officially declared over in June 2009, food assistance rolls continued to climb 37 percent.

No surprise

The statewide upsurge should come as no surprise as the country slumped into the recession and unemployment soared, with people remaining out of work for long periods, experts said.

It also isn’t startling that the need has grown at a faster rate in rural and suburban areas because people and many jobs are moving out of urban centers. The percentage growth there appears massive because so few people had been receiving food assistance in those areas.

Gary Bright, chief executive officer of the West Ohio Food Bank in Lima, said there also has been a major effort by the government and advocates to enroll people in food assistance programs, and that could explain some growth.

The stigma of food stamps, though, remains strong, especially in rural areas, he said.

“There really has been a push to let people know that if you qualify, you don’t need to be ashamed,” Bright said.

Ohio Job and Family Services spokeswoman Angela Terez said the demand for food assistance is leveling off.

“But we know people are still hurting,” she said. “Caseloads are still high. ... We’re in a recovery but it’s a very slow, bumpy recovery. It’s just going to take awhile for us to get back to where we were before the recession.”

Families are eligible for food assistance if a household’s gross monthly income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means a household makes $2,389 or less a month.

The Beacon Journal analyzed the Job and Family Services data as many recipients brace for a drop next year in monthly benefits.

The state notified more than 217,000 clients in late November that their monthly benefit would go down about $19, either because of a federal formula related to utility bills or a cost-of-living increase for households that also receive Ohio Works First or Social Security benefits.

Analysis details

The Beacon Journal analysis showed:

• The growth in the 10 most populous counties was 60 percent, compared with the 71 percent seen in the rural and suburban counties.

Despite that, people living in urban areas continue to use SNAP more than elsewhere. Those 10 big counties combined saw about 388,470 more people on food assistance, compared with about 298,300 in the other 78 counties combined.

• Warren County, a bedroom community between Cincinnati and Dayton, led Ohio with a 169 percent increase over the past five years. The number of food stamp recipients rose from 3,865 to 10,378.

Local leaders are puzzled why their county topped the state. The county had a median household income of $71,961 last year, the second highest in Ohio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The theory is that residents who commute lost their jobs in neighboring counties.

“We really don’t know ourselves,” said Doris Bishop, director of the Warren County Human Services agency. “We just know we’ve been very busy.”

The other fastest-growing counties in the top five, in order, were: Van Wert (144 percent), Darke (139 percent), Geauga (130 percent) and Mercer (127 percent).

• A cluster of 10 counties in western Ohio had increases of 101 percent or more: Auglaize, Champaign, Darke, Hardin, Logan, Mercer, Miami, Preble, Shelby and Van Wert.

David McClough, an economics professor at Ohio Northern University, said the cluster could be a coincidence or related to cutbacks in the auto industry.

There are many manufacturing shops and other businesses along the Interstate 75 corridor that rely on the auto industry and had to scale back, he said.

“Nothing replaces it, so these unfortunate folks don’t have other job opportunities,” McClough said.

• The state’s big urban counties saw major increases in the number of people, but the percentage growth was lower because of the amount of people already receiving food benefits there.

Cuyahoga County, the most populous in Ohio, topped the state with an additional 82,428 people receiving food assistance last year compared to five years ago. But that was only a 46 percent increase.

Overall, 260,658 people got help through SNAP last year in the county. Cuyahoga also ranked first for the number of people receiving help.

Franklin County was second with 76,492 more people signed up, a 63 percent increase. Hamilton, Montgomery and Summit rounded out the top five.

Summit saw a 60 percent jump to a total of 83,051 last year.

• Among the urban counties, the fastest growing was Stark, with a 91 percent increase. A total of 56,890 received help last year.

• The amount of money spent on food benefits in Ohio climbed from $1.28 billion to $2.9 billion over five years, an increase of 129 percent.

The average benefit rose from $100 to $140 per individual.

Medina increase

In the Akron area, Medina County saw the greatest percentage of increase.

The number of residents on food assistance more than doubled, going from 5,160 five years ago to 10,432 last year.

That jump didn’t surprise Donna Norris, a 56-year-old Medina resident who visited the Medina United Methodist Church Food Pantry on a recent Friday.

“There are no jobs, and you have to feed your family,” said Norris, who receives Social Security disability payments and helps care for five grandchildren.

She has received government food assistance for seven years, but the money doesn’t stretch far enough. Her monthly benefit will fall from $120 to $92 a month next year.

“The price of food is ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t even know how people who have less than me survive.”

The pantry, which serves people living in the 44256 ZIP code, has seen the number of families it serves grow. In August, the pantry helped 144 families. That number climbed steadily to 172 last month.

Organizers expect the number to rise.

“With the cut in food stamps, they are going to need some help, and they are going to come here,” board member Marylou Krish said.

Michelle Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, agreed.

“It’s scary,” she said. “It concerns us. This is going to increase hunger among our most vulnerable populations: the seniors, our children.”

Krish noted that 60 percent of the church pantry’s clients work, but they can’t make ends meet.

The pantry also is seeing a rise in clients who have never needed help before.

“A man came in with tears running down his face and said, ‘I never thought I’d have to feed my family this way. I never thought I’d be here,’ ” Krish said.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.