Local food pantries say they need more help now than ever

Numbers went up during height of COVID-19 pandemic and did not lower.

The need for food for families in Butler County is up, according to local pantry managers. And as the holidays approach, some are asking the public to give a little earlier to help.

One pantry experiencing an influx of families is Village Food Pantry, a food bank that serves the entire county from its location on Riverside Drive in New Miami. Food pantries can look and operate in myriad ways, but Village Food Pantry — due to its small parking lot — is more or less forced to be a drive-thru style, and only about four cars can fit in the lot at a time.

Around 6 p.m. this past Wednesday, cars were wrapped around the block waiting for their turn to pick up a box of food. The line pointed southbound on Ohio 127, but extended northward to the intersection, past a neighboring gas station, and wrapped back onto Hamilton Eaton Road.

“We have been non-stop since 4 o’clock,” said Pam Benson, the pantry’s founder and director. “We have not let up at all.”

“The police were actually over here earlier, around 3 o’clock,” Benson recalled. “He said, “What can you do to remedy this?’ I said, ‘There is no remedy to this process right now.”

Pamela noted that cars weren’t honking — a sign that folks in line were indeed waiting, not just passers-by thinking they were stuck in a jam.

In a normal week, at least as of late, Benson’s pantry serves about 250 to 300 families a week. Given that the pantry only passes out food one day a week, it’s more or less serving hundreds of families from about 4 to 7 p.m. every Wednesday.

This time, there were 335 families served by Village Pantry, a number that’s been steadily trending upward. Benson said it’s considerably higher than it was during the height of COVID-19′s economic impact.

“When COVID hit, we were basically serving around 75 families a week on a Wednesday,” Benson said. As the pandemic wore on, Village Pantry was asked to serve a wider community, and loosen its restrictions. Essentially, if a Butler County resident felt they needed help, Village Pantry wouldn’t turn them down.

“Our numbers went up automatically right then, and they basically don’t go down,” Benson said.

Even if some families stop coming, Benson said she’s consistently seeing 30 to 40 new families register with her pantry each week.

Those numbers are spurred by newer economic impacts, too. The cost of food, utilities, gas and rent have all increased since the pandemic’s outset, and Benson sees that impact on Butler County families.

“[You’ve got] rising cost of food, you still got people coming in that are laid off from work, or you get a phone call saying, ‘We just lost a job,’” Benson said. “One of the ladies that came through today hadn’t been here in a while, and said they just cut their food stamps [and] got laid off. That’s what you’re hearing every week, for whatever reason.”

Economic impacts also take their toll on the pantries themselves. Village Pantry moved to a new location nearly two years ago and now the bills are higher, the utilities are more expensive, and the rising cost of food is impacting how Benson can go about serving the community.

Where the food comes from

One of those impacts is centered on how Benson gets her food. Village Pantry and many other Ohio food pantries order their stock from Shared Harvest, a Fairfield-based food bank that essentially distributes bulk and wholesale items to smaller food pantries. A worldwide food shortage has made that job considerably difficult for Shared Harvest officials.

“With the shortage of food, that’s where we went into a crisis,” Benson said. “I used to be able to have like seven or eight sheets of different things that I could order, now it’s down to like three.”

Terry Perdue, the executive director of Shared Harvest, said his food bank usually receives about half of its food through government sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture, and, through market competition, the USDA has had a harder time fulfilling Shared Harvest’s orders.

“We have had nearly sixty truckloads of USDA product cancelled without hope of ever receiving it,” Perdue said. “Items such as canned fruits and vegetables, produce, and frozen and shelf stable protein such as tuna and peanut butter that would normally be donated to us through government sources, are no longer available.”

As a result, Shared Harvest’s inventory is down over 30% compared to October of last year, Perdue said, adding, “Many of our shelves are now empty with limited variety to offer.”

For Butler County pantries, there’s a universal struggle of varying degrees to deal The coinciding timing of a decreased supply in a year where more families are turning to food pantries makes it

This problem is likely impacting all of Butler County’s 29 food pantries that are partnered with Shared Harvest, and the supply shortage, combined with an increased need, combined with their own rising costs, is putting all pantries in a tougher-than-usual spot.

Scott Stephens, the director of West Chester Twp.’s Reach Out Lakota, said his pantry has seen a 35% increase in number of clients, and it’s higher now than it ever was during COVID-19’s peak.

“The cost of food has gone up for families and the cost of fuel, so there’s a bigger need there,” Stephens said. “Our costs are also going up as well, it’s affected both families as well as the pantries.”

Stephens said many of his pantry’s clients were just scraping by, even before inflationary issues.

Maurice Maxwell, the director of Family Service of Middletown, said his pantry is seeing about a 10% to 15% increase in families served this year, and added that rising costs are his biggest struggle.

“We’re seeing a strong influx of people, and we’re seeing those people coming to us with more frequency,” Maxwell said. “We still are seeing more people who are struggling, mainly because of the inflationary factors of gas and electric, gas for your car, rental increases, etcetera.”

Maxwell said his pantry’s clients are more or less having to choose between paying for food or paying for gas and utilities. And, almost universally, it’s easier to find help for food than it is for filling your tank.

“The inflationary issue on us [as] the provider of resources has caused increases in every way,” Maxwell said. “Whether it’s our ability to pay utilities, whether it’s our ability to pay for food, it’s all the same.”

“We definitely are struggling, I can tell you that. We are struggling to meet the overall expense of being able to keep our doors open to provide this service to our community,” Maxwell said.


Village Food Pantry: Monetary donations may be given online at https://villagefoodpantry.com or sent via check through postal mail to New Miami Food Pantry, 617 B North Riverside Drive, Hamilton, OH 45011.

Shared Harvest Food Bank: Mail a check to Shared Harvest Food Bank, 5901 Dixie Hwy., Fairfield, OH 45014 or go online to sharedharvest.org/donate.

Family Service of Middletown: Go online to http://paypal.me/FSMChoiceMarket to donate money, or mail a check to 555 No. Verity Pkwy, Middletown, OH 45042.

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