A God-Sized Food Bank
Thirty-two counties in eastern Ohio are considered part of Appalachia, and the stereotypical images of that region's poverty—ramshackle houses, dilapitated barns, small businesses and large factories long shut down—are scattered throughout.
Mahoning County, abutting the Pennsylvania state line, about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, is Exhibit A. Some 17 percent of the county's 240,000-plus residents, including almost 26 percent of its children, live below the poverty line.
Shonie Garono knows the situation all too well. In 2008, her husband, Anthony, was laid off from his steel mill job (he remains unemployed), and her income as a hairdresser didn't support the family. Though family members have helped to feed the Garonos' four children, the couple struggles to pay every bill and has come close to foreclosure a couple times.
Cathy and Brian French know, too. Cathy stays home with their four kids while Brian works as a diesel technician, repairing semi-trucks. But as the cost of living rose—and Brian's pay didn't—it wasn't long before the family was falling $200 to $300 short in their monthly budget. They have never missed a rent payment and regularly pay utility bills, but even with scrimping and stretching, they often run out of milk and meat until Brian's next pay period. They have resorted to rolling quarters and dimes to pay for Brian's commute.
Where to turn for help? For these families and many others in Mahoning, the answer is a 22,000-square-foot warehouse in the middle of nowhere. The Big Reach Center of Hope, a 501(c)(3) ministry of Greenford Christian Church, is a food pantry and distribution center situated in a town so small it's an unincorporated dot on the Ohio map. But its reach is indeed big: The center, which serves five counties, has provided food and clothing to nearly 150,000 individuals since its inauspicious opening in 2004, including 70,000 individuals in 2010 alone, making it one of Ohio's biggest food pantries. (The largest, Freestore Food Bank's Customer Connections Center, based in Cincinnati, serves about 90,000 clients annually.)
Some clients drive nearly two hours to Big Reach. For those who cannot make the trek, the ministry supplies food to 25 partner pantries in the region, giving tentacles to its centralized location.
The largest nearby city, Youngstown, and the rest of the Mahoning Valley area has been especially hard hit by the faltering economy, feeling the impact before most of America, says Big Reach co-founder and director Scott Lewis: "We knew there was a recession before the government did."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Youngstown area's unemployment rate has more than doubled in three years, from 6.2 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in June 2010. By October 2010, the rate had improved to 10.6 percent, still higher than the national average of 9.2 percent. Youngstown's situation is complicated by a rapidly shrinking population, from 166,000 in 1960 to 82,000 today, primarily due to the loss of steel and manufacturing industries.
But while Youngstown has its own food pantries and homeless ministries, Big Reach serves mostly people from the surrounding fields and farms, a microcosm of rural poverty in America. (See "A Developing Nation Inside the U.S.")
Howard Jones, 66, is the face of such poverty. A resident of nearby Lisbon, Jones had been a millwright at a steel mill, "the whole bread and butter" of the area and an industry that has essentially vanished, for 27 years. When Jones retired, he began visiting Big Reach to fill the gaps left over after Social Security. He estimates that 90 percent of his monthly groceries come from the ministry. "I can't take my wife out to dinner any more," Jones says, "but God's always provided for me."