Just off the main drag in Nelsonville sits the food pantry, and volunteers are loading up boxes with staples for a noon rush.
“We have the cereal, and we have spaghetti, we have peanut butter, vegetables,” a volunteer says, looking over the boxes.
Margaret Shesky and her husband Larry Lafferty run the pantry, which serves residents throughout Athens County. Shesky explains February is typically their slowest month.
“That didn’t happen this year,” she says. “Our numbers were equal to other months in February, and we serve usually between 600 and 700 families a month at this food pantry, so there was no dip last February.”
They point to the federal government shutdown as the culprit. Although the president and Congress reached a truce back in January, Lafferty explains the dispute disrupted payments for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program formerly known as food stamps.
“So there were times I think when they received additional SNAP dollars that they normally wouldn’t—really as an advance on what was coming,” Lafferty says. “It was spent, and then, then there was deprivation. Then they didn’t have it when they normally would, and they normally would need it.”
In mid-January, Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services distributed February’s dollars early under the direction of federal officials. Then, in hopes of not leaving recipients completely broke, they split the next month into two staggered payments.
No one wound up losing any money, but that split payment means many cupboards are now going empty. Imagine switching from a monthly paycheck, to every other week, and then back.
“People have been coming to this pantry who haven’t been here in a while,” Shesky says, “kind of indicating that going to a pantry is a last resort, but recently it’s been necessary.”
Closer to Columbus, providers haven’t seen the same uptick, but David Keller from the Southeast Ohio Foodbank says the same story is playing out in pantries across the 10-county region they serve. Keller says the network saw 500 more pantry visits in February this year than the last, and one of the biggest increases came from seniors.
“You know there’s a lot of talk right now going on about, ‘Oh, the economy is recovering, people have well-paying jobs,’” he says. “We see that in metropolitan areas. That does not necessarily trickle out to rural, Appalachian Ohio, and that is the area we serve.”
Tammy Exline says the increased traffic in Nelsonville has been hard to miss.
“Last week I couldn’t even get in here,” she says. “There was a line at 11:00 waiting to get in here, a line clear up there to Shrivers Drug Store a block away.”
She’s holding a bag of groceries in each hand, with more tucked into the stroller with her kids. SNAP payments return to normal in April, and Exline hopes that gets her family back on a normal footing.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve got marked on my calendar,” she says. “But who knows.”