Hunger exploded in 2020. But it’s not all bad news.

2020 was a terrible year for hunger and food insecurity, but it ended on a positive note after an anonymous benefactor donated more than $300,000 to local food relief efforts.

Hunger relief and anti-poverty groups needed all the help they could get after mass layoffs, business closures and other coronavirus-related economic disruptions led to huge lines at food pantries and left too many families with bare refrigerators and cupboards.

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Before the pandemic, the community was making progress in its fight against food insecurity, as Dayton went from one of the “hungriest” communities in the nation to dropping out of the top 40, said Ambassador Tony Hall, founder of the Hall Hunger Initiative, a nonprofit group dedicated to eliminating hunger in the Dayton community.

But since COVID-19 hit the Miami Valley, the number of people seeking food assistance is up about 28%, according to the Foodbank Inc.

“We have a ways to go, but we have a plan and there’s a good hunger coalition,” Hall said. “This pandemic has set us back.”

Former U.S. Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall at a press conference about the Gem City Market at Grandview Medical Center in 2018. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
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Former U.S. Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall at a press conference about the Gem City Market at Grandview Medical Center in 2018. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

A quiet angel

Ambassador Hall said an anonymous “Christmas angel” has provided more than $300,000 to local groups including Miami Valley Meals, Homefull and the Area Agency on Aging.

Hall, a former congressman, said the out-of-state donor originally is from Dayton and wanted to help people who are hurting while supporting programs that will have a lasting impact.

Miami Valley Meals, previously Set the Banquet Table, will receive $110,000 to help pay for a packaging machine and other expenses.

The nonprofit has a culinary team of about eight chefs who prepare healthy and tasty meals that are frozen and provided at no cost to about 21 community organizations that feed hungry people, said Amanda DeLotelle, executive director of Miami Valley Meals.

Miami Valley Meals prepares meals for distribution to community groups that help feed the poor and needy. From left, chefs Mac Haynes and Angela Abnett and executive director Amanda DeLotelle. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
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Miami Valley Meals prepares meals for distribution to community groups that help feed the poor and needy. From left, chefs Mac Haynes and Angela Abnett and executive director Amanda DeLotelle. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

The packaging machine will be a big help because chefs currently have to spend some of their time hand packaging and labeling every meal, DeLotelle said.

“This machine will give them more time for cooking instead of packaging,” she said. “It’s something like 20 times faster than how we were doing it.”

When the project launched early in the pandemic, it was producing about 200 meals per week. Now, it is preparing and helping distribute about 4,500 meals each week.

“There were people on the edge who were struggling a little bit who are hurting now more than ever,” DeLotelle said. “And there are people who never before asked for help who need help now.”

Miami Valley Meals chefs Mac Haynes and Angela Abnett sort and stack produce and other food items. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
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Miami Valley Meals chefs Mac Haynes and Angela Abnett sort and stack produce and other food items. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Unfortunately, DeLotelle said, hunger isn’t going away any time soon because the pandemic has caused long-lasting harm. But, she said, Miami Valley Meals will be there to help.

Homefull’s assistance

Homefull will receive about $130,000 of the anonymous donation that will help pay for a van with a lift system to transport residents to the organization’s Mobile Grocery Store and to the Gem City Market when it opens, officials say.

About $70,000 will help cover the cost of an 18-passenger handicap accessible shuttle bus, and the rest of the money will be used to expand a program that provides vouchers to low-income seniors so they can acquire produce, said Tina Patterson, CEO of Homefull.

“The gift is incredibly significant in that it will allow Homefull to reach deeper into food desert communities and assist a greater number of low-income households and senior adults who are marginally housed and most vulnerable to food insecurity,” Patterson said.

Food access was a major concern before the pandemic, since almost almost 18% of residents of Montgomery County (pop. 531,685) were food insecure, local advocacy groups say.

But they say demand for emergency food assistance has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.

The Foodbank has a long line up Germantown St. in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
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The Foodbank has a long line up Germantown St. in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

This fiscal year, the Foodbank has distributed 19 million pounds of food, which is 4 million pounds more than it distributed last year, even in the aftermath of the devastating tornadoes, said Michelle Riley, CEO of the Foodbank Inc.

While there is enough food for everyone, she said, long lines form at food pantries and distribution sites, and the best way to shorten these waits is to get people back to work.

“My biggest worry is for seniors,” Riley said. “Last month, The Foodbank served over 3,200 seniors in our lines.”

Hall Hunger Initiative

The anonymous donation highlights the work Hall and his nonprofit have done to try to eliminate hunger in the local community.

Founded in late 2015, the Hall Hunger Initiative has three employees and is connected to the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area. Officials say it is not a separate 501(c)3.

Hall said the hunger initiative works to identify and fill in food and nutritional gaps in the community.

The nonprofit has helped secure important funding to address food insecurity and has been called a “big-picture organization” and a “systems-thinker” by some community partners.

Patterson, with Homefull, said the nonprofit has been a key collaborative partner and facilitator to bring the community together to focus on viable solutions to food insecurity.

Hall and the Hall Hunger Initiative have a unique ability to raise funds in the area of food access and also played a big role in the development of the Gem City Market, according to Riley.

The initiative’s key services are education and advocacy, and it helped design and create the Montgomery County Food Equity Plan, said Mark Willis, director of the Hall Hunger Initiative.

“One of the most important things we do is direct attention to root causes of hunger,” he said. “Racism has to be part of that discussion.”

Most of the nonprofit’s funding comes from the Jack W. and Sally D. Eichelberger Foundation, but it has received donations from a small number of individuals and organizations, he said.

Hunger is not a choice. Giving is

The Dayton Daily News Valley Food Relief effort has raised more than $150,000 to help the hungry in our community. Every dollar donated provides food for six meals to The Foodbank’s network of food pantries, community kitchens, shelters and Kids Cafés. The campaign continues through Jan. 10. To donate, visit daytondailynews.com/foodrelief.