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Join a Food Drive This Month

AARP urges donations of food and money to relieve hunger

John Walter can stretch a fixed income and government assistance only so far. Sometimes, he runs out of both food stamps and money. But he still needs to eat.

To bridge the gap, he visits Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine hospitality kitchen and food pantry in Toledo, which is open every Wednesday.

For about two years, he's relied on it to supplement his food stamps, the 78-year-old Walter said during a recent visit.

"This is a super good place. If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't have that much to eat." Walter is a widower who was forced into early retirement when the factory where he worked closed.

Bobb Pacholski, 88, who helped to found the food kitchen nearly 28 years ago, said roughly 500 people are served each week. That is up more than 30 percent from two years ago.

James Caldwell, president and CEO of the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank, has seen a similar trend. His facility distributed more food in the first eight months of 2010 than it did in all of 2009, and he expects it will distribute close to 6 million pounds of food this year.

"Times are tough," he said. "We've got a lot of hungry folks in Ohio."

Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity, distributes well over 135 million pounds of food each year to Ohioans in need.

That is more than 15,000 pounds of food every hour of every day, but it doesn't match the need.

"Oh, no. It's never enough," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks (OASHF).

Older Ohioans are particularly hard-hit. A Feeding America report found that 26.4 percent of all households served by food pantries in Ohio included a person 50 and over.

"As the demand continues to grow, what we are seeing is many of our agencies are trying to cope," said Hamler-Fugitt. "They're lightening the bag or lightening the box, trying to stretch the food that they have to try to meet the growing demand."

To try to make sure every bag and every box is full, AARP Ohio is conducting a hunger relief drive through November to support people in need by contributing to 12 Feeding America food banks in Ohio.

AARP Ohio's 1.5 million members can donate food or money. AARP is particularly urging donations of low-sugar, low-salt, high-protein foods that older Ohioans might need, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions. High-protein supplements such as nutritional shakes are especially welcome.

Tamara James, AARP Ohio senior manager of state operations, said one of the food drive's goals is to raise awareness that assistance is available for those who need it.

"Only about one-third of eligible older adults in Ohio are enrolled in food assistance," James said. "We hope this food drive will help bridge the gap in the short-term, and that efforts by AARP Ohio, OASHF and other organizations to connect older adults with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment will help them in the long-term."

Ohio residents in need of food assistance can apply for SNAP benefits at their local county Department of Job and Family Services or by visiting the Ohio Benefit Bank.

Residents can help the food drive by donating online to their local food bank at the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks or the Create the Good websites. They also can donate food or money at a local food bank. For more information, call 1-877-223-7161 toll-free.

Ohioans who want to organize a food drive in their own communities can go to Create the Good to download a toolkit.

The economy has hit food banks hard from both ends: More people need assistance, yet fewer people can afford to offer it.

"As the demand continues to climb for our services, We're all being impacted by this great recession," Hamler-Fugitt said. "Last year's donors are this year's food bank clients."

Older people are the backbone of volunteer efforts at Ohio food banks and food kitchens, she said. They're also the fastest-growing group requesting food assistance — but the last ones to ask for help.

"They are always the last to show up because they are concerned that if they receive food from a food pantry that the young people down the street won't be able to receive food," she said. "The greatest generation, the people who built this country, they have just been left behind. When I see seniors standing in food lines that are reminiscent of what I've read about in the Great Depression, there is something fundamentally wrong with that."

Chris Iott is a reporter for Booth Newspapers and living in Jackson, Mich.

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