Hungry in Cleveland: Unmasking the Crisis of Food Insecurity

Lack of good nutrition remains a problem throughout several Cleveland neighborhoods, which has been made worse by the pandemic. Reports reveal a disheartening surge of 35% in families seeking food assistance.
Cleveland food aid
Courtesy: Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland
By | 10 min read

In the heart of District 4, Cleveland, where bustling neighborhoods and lively communities thrive, an unsettling crisis has been quietly unfolding. Since March 2023, a shadow has crept across the landscape, one that has cast a growing number of families into a harsh and uncertain reality: food insecurity. The numbers are staggering, and the voices of those affected resonate with an urgency that demands our attention.

According to reports from local community organizations, the number of families seeking assistance with food has surged by a disheartening 35% in recent months.

One voice among many echoes the somber truth, as a dedicated worker at a local food pantry reflects, “People are experiencing food insecurity more now than I have seen in my seven years with the organization.”

America’s Nutrition Crisis: Battling Diet-Related Health Challenges Amidst a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a stark reality in the United States: the nation’s poor baseline health, exacerbated by diet-related chronic diseases, has made it uniquely vulnerable to the virus. As the country grapples with a staggering number of cases and fatalities, it becomes increasingly clear that addressing nutrition insecurity is as critical as providing more food to combat this and future pandemics.

A significant contributor to the vulnerability of the U.S. population is the presence of diet-related chronic diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, and obesity, which significantly increase the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Alarmingly, nearly three out of four American adults are overweight or obese, while half of all U.S. adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Shockingly, only 12% of Americans are considered metabolically healthy, a metric that takes into account various health markers. In a pandemic environment, these diet-related health issues are not future concerns; they can hasten death in the immediate future.

This poor metabolic health is largely a result of inadequate diets and nutrition. Just as chronic diseases worsen outcomes for individuals with COVID-19, the U.S. food system, characterized by highly processed, carbohydrate-laden, shelf-stable foods, is the pre-existing condition putting the entire nation at greater risk. Nutrition insecurity, which centers on providing the right kind of food for optimal health, becomes paramount in times like these.

Fresh food for those is in need in Cleveland.
Courtesy: Greater Cleveland Food Bank

The roots of America’s food challenges trace back to legacy food policies developed in the 1940s, primarily driven by national security concerns. These policies were created during a time of caloric deprivation, but they have evolved into a system focused on mass production of highly processed, convenient foods at the expense of fresh, whole foods. As a result, Americans have shifted from consuming wholesome meals to relying on processed, less nutritious options, leading to the diet-related health crisis we face today.

It’s clear that the once well-intentioned programs aimed at ensuring national security and convenience have outlived their original purpose. Rather than promoting the health and productivity of our citizens, these policies have contributed to a nation grappling with obesity and malnutrition. Even the U.S. military is affected, with exceptionally high rates of obesity in young Americans, rendering many ineligibles for service.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities in the industrialized food system, marked by efficiency but lacking resilience. Farmers have been forced to discard surplus produce and dairy products while long lines form at food banks. This crisis underscores the urgency of addressing nutrition insecurity and supporting local and specialty farmers who are often left struggling.

Rising Food Insecurity in Cleveland’s District 4: An Urgent Crisis Unfolds

Like many other industrial cities of the 20th century, Cleveland faced substantial population decline and vacant properties, starting in 1960.

The 2008 recession compounded these issues, leading to the departure of more than half of the city’s population by 2010. Urban agriculture in Cleveland has taken on a diverse profile, with a primary focus on specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables.

There has been a growing trend of producers raising bees, chickens, or ducks within the city limits. Furthermore, there is potential for expanding egg and meat production within the city. The models of urban food production vary widely, encompassing residential agriculture, community gardens, market gardens, as well as urban and peri-urban farms.

These products are cultivated or raised for both personal consumption and commercial sale. In Cuyahoga County at large, the demand for healthy food has increased in tandem with the growing interest in urban agriculture.

Nonetheless, food producers in the city face a range of challenges, including dealing with a limited growing season, overcoming barriers to obtaining business licenses, securing land leases, obtaining insurance and capital, and addressing issues related to soil quality and water access.

For commercial growers, accessing the necessary infrastructure for production and distribution poses additional hurdles. Urban farmers also grapple with the dilemma of pricing food affordably while ensuring that their livelihoods are sustainable, all while encouraging residents to make healthy choices by purchasing locally grown goods.

Household food insecurity, as defined by experts, is the inability of individuals or families to consistently access a sufficient quantity of nutritious food due to financial constraints. It’s a problem that manifests in various ways, from reducing the quality of foods consumed to distressingly enduring days without eating anything at all because there simply isn’t enough money to put food on the table.

The implications of food insecurity are profound and far-reaching, extending well beyond the immediate discomfort of an empty stomach. It is a powerful predictor of adverse health outcomes, encompassing both chronic and infectious diseases.

Those grappling with food insecurity are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions, and their overall social well-being is compromised. This crisis even affects life expectancy, robbing individuals of the fundamental right to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

Household food insecurity is not a local issue alone; it spans provinces and stretches across nations. It is an urgent and worsening public health problem that demands immediate attention and action from local, provincial, and federal decision-makers.

Cleveland residents encounter their own set of challenges when it comes to accessing healthy and affordable food, whether it is urban-grown or not. These obstacles include a lack of walkable or transit-friendly grocery store or market options, as well as limited incomes that restrict their ability to purchase food.

Consequently, a significant portion of Cleveland’s population, including 35.4% living in poverty, relies on corner stores, which often lack the capacity to stock healthy or culturally appropriate food. This situation disproportionately affects low-income residents, seniors, and children, who face considerable food access challenges.

In 2021, approximately 89.8 percent of U.S. households, equivalent to 118.5 million households, were classified as “food secure.” These households had consistent access to enough nutritious food for all their members throughout the year. Remarkably, this percentage remained essentially unchanged from the previous year, where it stood at 89.5 percent.

However, the remaining 10.2 percent, or 13.5 million households, faced varying degrees of food insecurity at some point during the year. This group includes households with “low food security” (6.4 percent) and “very low food security” (3.8 percent).

Cleveland is one of the highest poverty cities in the country,” said Dr. Darcy Freedman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine. “In Cleveland, we have higher rates of food insecurity than the state. The state has higher rates of food insecurity than the nation.”

Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland is in an outdoor activity
Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland

“The problem of food insecurity is a problem with a broken system. So, in this work we’ve tried to identify, well, where are the places to address the system as the problem rather than individuals sort of reacting to a faulty system?”

Children bear a significant portion of the burden when it comes to food insecurity. Among households with children under the age of 18, approximately 12.5 percent experienced food insecurity in 2021. In some of these households, only adults were food insecure, but in others, children also faced food insecurity challenges.

The pandemic’s repercussions extended beyond children to encompass all households with children, with food insecurity rates surging from 13.6 percent in 2019 to 14.8 percent in 2020. This increase was a consequence of various factors, including the closure of schools, which left millions of children without access to free and reduced-price meals they relied upon.

Certain demographic groups experienced significantly higher rates of food insecurity compared to the national average of 10.5 percent. These groups included households headed by single parents, particularly single women at 27.7 percent and single men at 16.3 percent.

Additionally, households with Black, non-Hispanic or Hispanic survey respondents faced food insecurity rates of 21.7 percent and 17.2 percent, respectively. Those with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold also suffered greatly, with a staggering 28.6 percent experiencing food insecurity.

Conversely, some groups fared better in terms of food security, with rates well below the national average. Married couple families with children experienced a lower food insecurity rate at 9.5 percent. Households with no children, especially those with more than one adult and no children, reported rates as low as 7.1 percent.

Households with elderly persons, including elderly individuals living alone, faced food insecurity rates ranging from 6.9 percent to 8.3 percent. Similarly, households with white, non-Hispanic survey respondents and those with incomes at or above 185 percent of the poverty threshold had lower food insecurity rates, at 7.1 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively.

The Impact of SNAP Benefit Loss and Rising Food Costs on Food Insecurity

The discontinuation of pandemic-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in March 2023, combined with the escalating cost of food, has undeniably exacerbated the issue of food insecurity.

That decrease in SNAP benefits has had a significant impact on households in Cleveland, Ohio.

The reduction in benefits is a result of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which ended the Emergency Allotments (EA) program. EA was a crucial lifeline for many SNAP recipients during the pandemic, providing an additional payment separate from the standard monthly benefit.

With the expiration of these benefits in Ohio in February 2023, SNAP households are now grappling with a substantial decrease in their monthly assistance, with some losing even more than $95.

In Cleveland, approximately 1 in 3 households, totaling 114,000 families, will directly feel the consequences of this change.

This reduction in benefits has placed a heavy burden on vulnerable populations, including seniors on fixed incomes and low-income families with children. Mary McNamara, the Director of the Cleveland Department of Aging, highlighted the severity of this situation: “This loss of benefits, coupled with the inflated food prices we are seeing, is significant, particularly for seniors on fixed incomes and for low-income families with children.” 

To mitigate the impact of these changes, the City of Cleveland has taken proactive steps to support its residents. A key initiative involves partnering with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to launch three new produce pop-up distribution centers. These centers are designed to provide free produce to residents on a first-come-first-served basis, helping to bridge the gap left by the reduction in SNAP benefits.

The distribution sites are strategically located to ensure accessibility for residents. The Collinwood Neighborhood Resource & Recreation Center, the Michael Zone Neighborhood Resource & Recreation Center, and the East 59th St. & Haltnorth Ave. site offer food distribution during convenient afternoon hours to accommodate working families. Residents have the option to either drive-thru or walk-up to receive boxes or bags of groceries, which will be available as long as supplies last.

Furthermore, the Cleveland Department of Public Health has joined forces with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank to establish additional drive-thru food distribution locations at the J. Glen Smith Health Center and the Thomas McCafferty Health Center. These efforts supplement the food bank’s municipal lot drive-thru distribution program and existing food pantries throughout the city.

Summer Brings Concerns of Rising Food Insecurity for Students

As looking ahead to the summer months, there is a concerning forecast on the horizon: the expectation that food insecurity will continue to rise, particularly among families whose children relied on free and reduced lunches during the school year.

These meals served as a crucial source of nourishment for countless students, ensuring that they had access to regular, nutritious food. However, as schools close for the summer break, families are left grappling with the challenge of filling the void left by the absence of these meals.

The summer break poses a unique challenge for families already struggling with food insecurity. Without the school meal programs in place, parents and guardians face the added financial burden of providing additional meals for their children. For many, this presents a daunting task, especially in the context of rising food prices and other economic pressures.

A coalition of organizations based in Cleveland, Ohio, including the Ohio Education Association, a statewide teachers union, has come together to urge the Ohio Legislature to provide free school meals for all students. This call to action aims to address the issue of students experiencing hunger while at school in the Cleveland area.

Katherine Unger from the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio emphasized that the number of students facing hunger in school is unacceptably high, with one in six children across the state affected, and in certain counties, as many as one in four children.

It’s notable that more than one in three of these children facing hunger does not qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Unger highlighted the importance of school meals, as they are linked to better educational outcomes, including increased test scores, improved attendance, and higher graduation rates.

Scott DiMauro, President of the Ohio Education Association, pointed out that school lunch debt is accumulating at high rates after the pandemic-era waivers providing free school lunches to all students came to an end. As a result, schools are serving fewer meals to students, and lunch debt is rising significantly.

Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland is in a seminar
Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland

Megan Thompson, a parent in the Wellington Exempted School District in Lorain County, shared her family’s experience, stating that paying for meals each day is challenging and that universal meal programs made a huge difference in their lives.

The coalition’s call for free school meals for all students is not limited to any partisan affiliation, as other states, including those led by Republican leadership, have passed, or are working on legislation to achieve this goal. State Representative Jay Edwards, chair of the Ohio House Finance Committee, emphasized the importance of prioritizing education and increasing access to school meals for Ohio’s children.

The estimated cost of providing free school lunches for all students in Ohio is approximately $200 million per year, a fraction of the state’s overall general fund budget. A new state-federal partnership allows students’ families who receive Medicaid to automatically qualify for the national free- and reduced-price lunch program, potentially expanding the number of eligible students and qualifying more districts for federal subsidies, which could make the program more financially feasible for schools.

Addressing Hunger and Beyond: Greater Cleveland Food Bank’s Innovative Community Resource Center

Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland is in a conference
Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland

This fall, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (GCFB) is poised to unveil a remarkable initiative that goes beyond traditional food assistance. Their reimagined South Waterloo Road facility, spanning an impressive 197,000 square feet, is set to become a groundbreaking Community Resource Center.

Its primary aim is to provide individuals in need with a dignified, grocery store-like shopping experience while offering onsite access to critical services encompassing housing, healthcare, and employment support.

For GCFB CEO Kristin Warzocha, the project represents a shift in perspective regarding hunger. She emphasizes that hunger is often a symptom of more profound underlying issues. It could be the result of someone working a low-paying job and experiencing a reduction in hours.

It might also stem from individuals who are dedicating an unsustainable 60% of their income to rent, leaving them with insufficient resources to cover basic needs. Additionally, health concerns, accompanied by mounting medical bills or reduced work hours due to health conditions, can exacerbate food insecurity.

The South Waterloo Community Resource Center stands out as a pioneering endeavor in the realm of food banks nationally. Warzocha firmly believes that this innovative approach couldn’t come at a more crucial time. The GCFB, in conjunction with its pantry partners, has experienced a surge in the number of clients served every month since November 2022.

What’s even more striking is that, over the past 12 months, they have assisted over 90,000 individuals who had never sought emergency food assistance before—an unexpected and eye-opening development.

As September is designated Hunger Action Month, it serves as a poignant reminder of the pressing issue of food insecurity and its far-reaching impact. The GCFB’s South Waterloo Community Resource Center not only addresses immediate food needs but also aims to address the root causes of hunger by providing comprehensive support services.

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