Our Towns

Second Harvest Looks to Top Record-Setting Campaign

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In 2019, Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley hit another milestone: 11.5 million pounds of food was distributed throughout Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties, a record distribution.

“We are looking forward to another successful campaign,” said Tony Modarelli, the food bank’s board president, at the 29th annual Harvest for Hunger campaign kickoff Friday morning. “We would not be able to feed as many people as we do without help and support.”

The Harvest for Hunger food drive is held in March and April throughout northeastern Ohio with four participating food banks in Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron and Lorain, said Mike Iberis, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley.

Last year, the drive raised $238,186 and collected more than 36,000 pounds of food. All funds raised and food collected remains in the tri-county area.

Each week, 11,000 individuals came to a food pantry or soup kitchen in the area for a meal or a bag of food, Iberis said. There has been a spike in hunger with senior citizens who are running out of money, and the food bank’s staff are working with schools to help alleviate the spike in childhood hunger, he said.

“It can become personal,” Iberis said. “Sometimes it’s someone in their own family who lost a job or has an illness. More people are being fed, but people are feeling good about helping. It’s ingrained in their DNA and [Harvest for Hunger] gives them the opportunity to do that.”

Of those receiving food last year, 30% were children and 24% were seniors, according to data from the food bank.

Guest speaker Judge Robert Rusu Jr., probate judge of Mahoning County

More than 100 people who have held food drives throughout the three counties joined with Harvest for Hunger to kick off this year’s campaign with sponsors Giant Eagle, 21 WFMJ/WBCB, Cumulus Radio, the Tribune Chronicle/Vindicator and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880.

Among those gathered was Lindsay Kovach, a fifth grade teacher and student council adviser at Blott Guy PK-6 School in Libery, who brought fifth and sixth grade student council members with her.

“We decided to do a food drive right before Thanksgiving, so students decided to have a contest between classrooms to do it,” Kovach said. “We gave each classroom a box and just kept encouraging all of the kids at the school to bring in nonperishables during our three-week time frame.”

Student council members went to each of the classrooms participating to retrieve and count the items for the contest, Kovach said. Students would then transfer items to collection boxes for the food bank in the school lobby, she said. Students ended up collecting nearly 2,000 pounds of donated food, she said.

“It was a good feeling that they could give back,” Kovach said. “It could be any one of us at any given time for any number of reasons. The kids know that it’s a worthy cause to donate time and energy to it.”

It felt good to give back to the community, said James Jones, a fifth grader at Blott Guy PK-6 School and student council member.

“It was really cool to get a bunch of cans and give them to other people,” he said. “It’s important because then people don’t starve.”

Lindsay Kovach, fifth grade language arts teacher and adviser for the fifth and sixth grade student council joins students from Blott Guy PK-6 in Liberty.

Second Harvest partners with 41 schools in the Mahoning Valley to provide food through its School Pantry program. Last year, students received food from the pantry nearly 30,000 times.

Pastor Julia Wike, executive director of The Basement Outreach Ministries, has also found a role in the Harvest for Hunger campaign. Basement Outreach has always been a recipient of donated food and now with three locations, the organization can provide for more people, Wike said.

This was Wike’s first time attending a Harvest for Hunger campaign and understands the importance of providing people in need with food, she said.

“I actually drove from Columbus,” Wike said. “I just wanted to support this because we need to be able to feed our community, and we couldn’t do it without Second Harvest.”

In 2019, Basement Outreach provided more than 2,000 meals between all three locations, Wike said. During one of the organization’s events, 963 families were served, she said. Wike says doing this type of work for many years shows her how much poverty has increased.

“It affects all walks of life and you just don’t know who you’re going to encounter who is going to need food,” Wike said. “We’re hoping to expand so we can reach more people.”

While the faces and the names of people seeking out food pantries, soup kitchens or the Second Harvest Food Bank are always changing, there are always people out there who are in need, Iberis said. Harvest for Hunger helps support that need, he said.

“Hunger has always been an issue since the beginning of time,” Iberis said. “In the Mahoning Valley, like anywhere else in the country, you have people who fall into this crack.”

However, most people who come to pantries and kitchens are not there forever, Iberis said. They’re there during a tough time in their lives, but they end up “springing back,” he said.

“We’ve had so many people come back to the pantries and to us and say, ‘You helped me when I needed it, and now I have a job and I’m well again, and I want to help,’ ” Iberis said. “It’s amazing. They become donors and supporters.”

People in the Mahoning Valley are compassionate and if they know someone who is in need, they step up to the plate, Iberis said. When people are helping 11,000 people per week, with either a meal at a soup kitchen or a bag of food, the difference can easily be seen, he said.

“We’ve had senior citizens come and tell us how grateful they are because without [Harvest for Hunger], they may have to prolong paying the bill on the electric or gas, and this gives them that little boost. These people don’t live on this. It’s an emergency and that’s the message we need to get out to the community.”

Pictured above: Tony Modarelli, board president of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley joins Michael Iberis, executive director, and Becky Page, director of development, for the Harvest for Hunger kick off.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.