Winning the Hunger Games

In the popular movie, “The Hunger Games,” the main character lives in a dystopian society in the impoverished District 12, where food is such a precious commodity most people can only get it through the black market known as The Hob.

Happily, Cleveland doesn’t resemble District 12; but for some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable population, who have little or no income, hunger is a constant battle. And, with the rising cost of food it’s a constant uphill battle.

food_pantryFor many of our neighbors, juggling basics like rent, utilities and medical bills with food costs is like balancing on a tightrope. In 2013, United Way 2-1-1 fielded nearly 280,000 requests for help, and topping the list were requests for food assistance. Through 2-1-1’s referral service, many of those requests were met.

In Cleveland, we are very fortunate to have various food assistance resources; among them are the many hunger centers – commonly referred to as food pantries – located throughout Cleveland and the suburbs. United Way of Greater Cleveland is currently working with Cuyahoga County to invest in over 30 food pantries. As a United Way staff member, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of these centers and see the need firsthand.

The pantries are located in the neighborhoods they serve, making it easily accessible for folks to get there on foot or by bus, and are housed inconspicuously in store fronts or church basements. Inside it’s a bustling metropolis.

I am amazed by the ability of the staff, which is mostly volunteer run. They manage their centers with the acumen of a CEO and the compassion of a parent, learning to stretch their allocated dollars and resources in creative ways to meet their clients’ needs. Every food pantry has a well organized registration system so clients receive a bag of groceries according to their family size.

The largest percentage of food is purchased from the Cleveland Food Bank and includes nutritional staples like tuna, peanut butter, cereal and produce. Additionally, by using available community resources, many pantries are able to offer additional health and social services like food program assistance, medical health screenings, job training programs and mental health services.

I am humbled, too, by the compassion and sense of responsibility displayed. No one who walks through the door is ever considered a statistic; they are locals, neighbors, community regulars, or clients. For some clients, this is their only refuge. In fact, there is often a pot of coffee with pastries waiting for them as they enter. They are here for assistance, yes, but there also exists a camaraderie among the clients and volunteers that bridges a societal gap.

Clearly, these food pantries are not The Hob, but rather the hub of community activism and an invaluable resource. For our part, United Way is committed to advancing food security whether it’s by mobilizing people, organizations and resources or through our referral service, United Way 2-1-1.

Together, we are making a collective impact on our community.

Click here to visit 211oh.org to search for hunger centers and other food assistance resources.

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