Hunger Persists: Parma Heights Pantry Busier Than Ever
When Ann George opened the Parma Heights Food Pantry in 2008, the depth of the Great Recession wasn’t yet apparent. The local food bank told her she would likely see about 50 families a month. Eight years later, with the recession long since officially over -- and recent census data showing years of high poverty easing in communities across the U.S. – the pantry supplies food to 280 to 300 families a month. “We’re seeing people that have gotten jobs again, but they’re not the good-paying jobs that they had,” George said. “I’ve actually had men come in here and cry. They say they never expected to see themselves in a place like this.”
George started concentrating on hunger in Parma Heights in 2007 after she overheard two women in the grocery store talk about struggling to make ends meet after their husbands died and their pensions were cut by more than half. A meeting was scheduled that night at her church to discuss mission donations to Central America. George told parishioners the money was needed at home. When she started making calls to drum up interest in a pantry, few believed there could be a problem in Parma Heights. “I found out then that if you weren’t affected by it, you didn’t know how bad it was,” said George. It was the same thing Michael Harrington described 50 years earlier in his book “The Other American,” when he said that poverty survived because it was invisible to most Americans.
Maps of poverty rates and the location of pantries and soup kitchens in Cuyahoga County help bring the picture of food scarcity into focus. In 1999, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank supplied 518 anti-hunger programs, primarily in the city of Cleveland. By 2015 there were 710 programs, scattered across a wider geographical area, with pantries and hot meal dining halls springing up in bedroom communities as far flung as North Royalton and Bay Village.
George and her small crew of dedicated volunteers see hurting families up close every week. Parma Heights families or those who go to a church in town can visit once a month to pick canned and boxed food, produce and bakery goods from the shelves. But George never turns anyone away. Rita Mandsley, 62, walks to the pantry from Middleburg Heights, 2 1/4 hours each way. She pulls a wagon to carry home food if it’s not raining. If it is, she uses a tote bag and takes less. “It means the difference between having something to eat and not,” she said. “I get by in between by scrounging through garbage cans.”
Nationally in 2015, the number of Americans living below the poverty level fell by 3.5 million, the largest annual decline in the poverty rate since 1999. The gains registered broadly across demographic, age, and income groups. But geographically, the recovery is uneven, researchers at the Brookings Institution said. “There are still communities across the country wondering how many years it will take for this recovery to reach them,” Elizabeth Kneebone and Cecile Murray said in a report in September.
At the Parma Heights Food Pantry, volunteers scramble to respond to the scarcity some local families live with. The pantry has gently-used clothing (up to six items per family member), children’s books (with a stuffed-bear chair for young visitors set up near the book shelves), a treasure chest of trinkets for kids and blankets that are donated to veterans. The pantry's main source of food is the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. Every week a small caravan heads there -– Ann and her husband, Arnie, in their car, following a truck driven by a neighbor. The pantry spends about $1,200 a month at the food bank and $1,500 for rent and utilities. November and December are the pantry’s busiest months. People that won’t come in the rest of the year show up hoping to put a holiday dinner on the table, George said.
I am a 24-year resident of Northeast Ohio who thinks our region is something of a hidden gem.