Food insecurity continues to plague cities across America. While many food banks and charity organizations are doing their best to keep their local communities fed, providing those in need with fresh produce is often easier said than done.
Thanks to the efforts of a number of local organizations and countless volunteers, Delaware County residents in need of food assistance have access to fresh produce at least once a month.
People In Need, Inc. of Delaware County Ohio began holding produce markets at its warehouse at 138 Johnson Drive in Delaware a number of years. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the not-for-profit social services agency began offering the markets every month from January through November, which will continue at least through 2022.
While the worst of the pandemic appears to be in the rearview mirror, the need for food, especially fresh produce, is at an all-time high locally.
At last month’s produce market, Dan Coutcher, PIN’s director of development and marketing, said a near record of 113 families were served, which is the busiest the market has been since July 2021.
As for the recent uptick in the number of families attending the produce markets, Coutcher said officials at PIN have held discussions about what might be behind all of it.
“There are still clearly people in Delaware County recovering from the pandemic – job loss, health declines, and a lot of households lost a spouse or parent,” he said, “The main rise in (PIN) Food Pantry visits we can track back to the rise in grocery costs as well as transportation. In addition to about 10% of our clients being new, there has been a massive influx of returning clients who had not visited us in three years or more. Simply, they had gotten ahead and the rising cost of living put them right back into the situation they had escaped.”
PIN’s monthly produce markets are stocked entirely by donations from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, which delivers in the neighborhood of six pallets of fresh produce once a month. Coutcher said that equates to about 6,000-8,000 pounds of food.
As for what the community can expect to receive, Coutcher said while there is always a wide variety of produce available, the exact items vary by the month.
“It largely depends on the season, and in the summer we see a great deal of vibrant fruits and vegetables, as well as some more year-round staples like potatoes and onions,” he said. “It’s always a pleasant surprise to see what we get since we don’t know ahead of time. Sometimes we get fresh milk and cheese, exotic fruits, organic varieties, and even some baked goods donated from Columbus manufacturers.”
In addition to produce, Coutcher added community partners often attend each produce market in order to make connections and distribute information on their programs.
“In March, we had CareSource and someone representing Medicare,” he said. “In the past, we’ve hosted the health district to administer COVID and flu vaccines onsite.”
Community gives back
According to Coutcher, the monthly produce markets run like a well-oiled machine because people in the community care about their neighbors and are willing to give up their free time to help others.
“We truly would not be able to pull this off every month without our volunteers,” he said. “They make up the backbone of our operations at PIN.
“The volume of requests for assistance we get every day is not relenting. Each week, about 10% of the families we welcome to the food pantry have never used our services before. Special events like the produce markets not only help get more nutritious, fresh foods into the community, but it helps build awareness both of our services and of the need within Delaware County.”
Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095 President Harold Wolford said his group has been helping with the produce markets since the end of 2015.
“We help set up the tables and produce, and we help determine how much of what the people get,” he said. “We do a lot of community service because that is the way we are.”
Produce markets are held rain or shine from 2-4:30 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month, except December. The next market, which operates on a first come, first served basis, will be held April 27 at 138 Johnson Drive in Delaware.
Unlike other programs offered by PIN, which are only available to Delaware County residents, the produce markets are open to residents throughout central Ohio.
“We are essentially a regional distributor for Mid-Ohio’s produce through this program, so we often see people from neighboring counties such as Morrow, Marion, Franklin, Knox, Union and others,” Coutcher said. “Everything else we offer is strictly limited to those within Delaware County.”
To be eligible, participants must be at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. When arriving at the PIN warehouse, individuals are asked to remain in their vehicles as the markets operate using the drive-thru format.
“Anything not given out during the produce market is used for the regular (PIN) Food Pantry and goes a long way in supplying neighbors with fresh food for an extended period,” Coutcher said.
For more information, visit delawarepeopleinneed.org.
Joshua Keeran is the managing editor of The Delaware Gazette. He can be reached at 740-413-0900.