Making a difference

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Hannah O’Malley helps unload produce before it is distributed to residents of the westside on Sept. 19. The Columbus resident was volunteering for the produce giveaway, which occurs every third Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. at Prairie Township Fire Station 241, located at 123 Inah Ave. The giveaway was established five years ago as a part of a collaboration with the Prairie Township Community Health Action Team and the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
Willa Skeehan (left) and Cassie Theobald discuss the proper way to cut into a pineapple as they prepare to place one in a produce box. The friends started volunteering for the produce distribution event last month as a way to give back to the community.

The exhaustion had started to set it.

For more than four hours, the small group of women had been packing, lifting, and lugging around 20-pound boxes.

Though they were all quite accustomed to physical activity, the event that they had just participated in felt like something else altogether.

“My arms feel like both lead and jelly at the same time,” said Cassie Theobald.

“My legs are quivering,” added Willa Skeehan.

“I’ve been sweating since I got here,” said Hannah O’Malley.

And yet despite all their aches and ailments, they each said that there was nothing else they would rather be doing.

“We’re helping to make a small difference in someone’s life and that beats minor aches any day of the week,” said Theobald.

On the morning of Sept. 19, the trio of coworkers with Cover My Meds assembled with another small gathering of activists at the Prairie Township Fire Station on Inah Avenue and waited for the arrival of a large box truck. When it pulled into the lot, emblazoned with the logo of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank on its sides, they rushed to it and got to work.

At first they started unloading the produce, the hundreds of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables on multiple pallets, set to be distributed to the hundreds of members of the neighboring and surrounding communities who struggle with food insecurity. Then they started to assort the items, which were prepackaged.

“There have been a few times when we have had to bag all of the individual goods themselves,” said fellow volunteer Nancy Day-Achauer. “Let me just say that I feel blessed when it is done for us in advance.”

After undertaking this step, which is spread out among a dozen tables provided by the fire department, they begin the long and arduous process of boxing up enough produce to feed a family for several weeks.

As they are doing this step, the last one before they start to load the heavy boxes into the vehicles of the foodbank clients, the line starts to form on Palmetto Avenue and begins to wrap around the surrounding streets.

When the produce distribution at the fire station started five years ago, Day-Achauer was on hand for its initial run. In fact, she was one of its original organizers.

“Around that time, we were approached by the leaders with Franklin County Public Health who wanted to form a Community Health Action Team for a number of communities in the area,” she said. “The mission was to pick one area, or multiple areas, of concern for the community and help provide education and ways to lessen this area of concern.

“Along with Doctors Hospital, the Westland Area Library, the South-Western City Schools District, the fire department, and the county sheriff’s office, we decided our primary focus would be on providing nutrition and wellness for our community.”

The westside is often referred to as a “food desert,” or an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food, but Day-Achauer said that status is a little more complex than initially thought.

“While some areas of the westside are certainly without markets or supermarkets that provide access to fresh foods, this area has a number of them available and within reasonable walking distance,” she said. “The problem is that those fresh foods are often higher in price, making our residents choose between buying something nutritious or stretching that buck.”

With that in mind, Day-Achauer said it became the mission of the Prairie Township CHAT to bring fresh and free produce to the community year-around. And in stepped the Mid-Ohio Food Collective to help them fulfill that mission.

Since 2015, the collective has been partnering with the township CHAT and helped to distribute more than 250,000 pounds of fresh food on the westside. In the years that followed, and as more CHAT’s came along, the collective maintained those ties.

“These relationships with the Franklin County Public Health Department have been vital to helping us get more healthy food into the community,” wrote Malik Perkins, the collective’s public relations manager.

Perkins praised the efforts of the Prairie Township CHAT and its dedication to providing the produce giveaway year-round, which is rare in the Midwest.

“The biggest challenge that some of our partners face in doing produce markets year-round is the availability of a space that can adequately house the fresh foods during our Ohio winters,” he said. “We are incredibly thankful that Prairie Township CHAT has such a space and is able to continue getting this fresh, healthy food into the community.”

Since its inception, the distribution event has primarily been hosted on the grounds of station 241 in the spring and summer, and inside the station during its cooler months. But that current setup is likely set to change as COVID-19 continues.

In March, the market turned into a drive-thru, which added to the stressors of the new environment. Another factor was the number of new faces coming through the line.

“When COVID first hit and businesses started shutting down, a whole bunch of people lost those good paying jobs and they had to turn to the local foodbanks for the first time in their lives,” said Day-Achauer. “I remember there were lines that wrapped around Norton Road and a deputy had to be called in to control the sheer amount of traffic. There was one instance where we even ran out of food and had to turn people away. It was just heartbreaking having to tell them that.”

The number of individuals and families accessing foodbanks due in part to COVID closures has yet to lessen. In fact, Perkins said it is starting to rise again.

“In recent weeks, we are starting to see volume increase again as stimulus initiatives end and long-term economic implications of this crisis become more apparent,” he said. “One of the areas we are seeing the biggest increase is the number of new families we are serving. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, we have measured nearly 600,000 visits to our partner agencies and more than 190,000 unique households.”

Perkins said that the Mid-Ohio Food Collective provides services to 21,718 people in the 43218 area alone.

Day-Achauer said it is a sad reality that people will continue to face food insecurity even when the effects of the pandemic begin to stabilize, but it remains a reality that the PT CHAT will continue on in its mission to provide free and fresh food to members of this community for years to come.

“We will still be holding this drive-thru in the cold months and we volunteers will complain about the temperature and we will continue to complain about our aches,” she said, “but we will be here for these people in their time of need.”


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