Editor's note: This story is the final part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County.
MANSFIELD -- Ever feel so overwhelmed by a problem you don't even know how or where to begin to fix it?
At Richland Source, we don't want you to feel this way about food insecurity --the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
Instead, we hope to help you feel empowered to make a difference by raising awareness of the many opportunities that can help fight it.
That's been the main objective of the Hunger in the Heartland series, which takes an in-depth look at how food insecurity is affecting Richland County residents and how people are working to mitigate the problem.
As one final piece in the series, we've compiled a list of just some of the ways you can get involved and effect positive change.
Not sure where to start but know you want to help? Volunteer at any one of the local food pantries or free meal locations.
Volunteer by helping stock, sort and distribute food; providing transportation (whether that's dropping food off to where the people are or bringing the people to where the food is); making sure guests feel welcome and cared for, and so on.
If you're thinking about creating a new food pantry or hosting a free meal, be sure to look at the existing ones first.
As indicated by a previous Richland Source article, First Call 211's free meal calendar for the month of June included 30 meal locations, 23 of which were in Mansfield (four in Madison Township), three were in Bellville, two were in Shelby, one was in Ontario and one in Olivesburg (across from Crestview Schools).
Fast forward to November, there are 28 free meal locations, with 21 in Mansfield (four in Madison Township), three in Bellville, two in Shelby, one in Ontario and one in Olivesburg (this doesn't take into account the free Thanksgiving Day meal sites).
According to First Call 211, Mansfield has 12 food pantries; Bellville, Lexington and Shelby each have two; and Lucas, Shiloh, Ontario and Olivesburg each have one.
Berean Baptist Church in Mansfield also has a food pantry that serves approximately 90 Richland County families a month. Food is delivered to the clients.
Knowing where and how many established pantries/free meal sites there are can help with determining whether it makes sense to start your own or support one that already exists.
"If we should get a call from a church or an organization indicating that they're interested in starting a food pantry or want more information about where gaps in services are, we would connect them to the other entities that are doing food pantries and suggest that they go spend some time to see how the different models are working to decide if they really have the wherewithal to be able to sustain the effort that they're interested in," said First Call 211 information and referral coordinator Terry Carter.
First Call 211 aims to function as a "central hub of information," providing useful information to the public and connecting members of the community with services that meet their needs.
"We would love to hear from any organizations that are doing services in their community that may not have thought to contact us, and we can work with them as to how they want to have their information in the database," Carter said.
To see about having a food pantry or free meal site listed in the First Call 211 database, call 419-522-4636.
Think outside the box
Kristin Warzocha, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank said hunger is a symptom of another issue.
The root of the problem varies from person to person, though according to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the three biggest drivers of food insecurity are related to housing, employment and health care.
With this in mind, think about how you could help treat the causes. If you have a background in finance, perhaps you could partner with a local organization to hold a financial workshop, with lessons on how to balance a budget.
Catholic Charities already does this in partnership with local bankers.
Diane Bail Bemiller, crisis navigator at Catholic Charities, said the organization's financial workshops are often well-attended.
"The people that attend those workshops walk away with a wealth of information, and we get a lot of positive feedback," she said.
Another way to help is via Catholic Charities' "3E Project," which seeks to empower, encourage and engage individuals to become self-sufficient.
As part of this year-long program, participants build a personal action plan, attend workshops and meet with a case manager and others who can provide assistance. Each experience is customized to meet the individual's needs.
Volunteers can be used in a variety of ways, including employment, personal and financial mentoring. Contact Sue Warren of Catholic Charities at 419-524-0733 to learn more.
Calling all cooks
Have any culinary interest or experience? Consider partnering with a local food pantry to hold a cooking demonstration.
Sometimes people receive food pantry items and don't know how to prepare them -- like kale. If this is you, check out this video.
Earlier this year, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, in partnership with Catholic Charities and First Call 211, led a free cooking demonstration and nutrition class. The event was meant to help visitors of local food pantries learn ways to make good-tasting, nutritious meals and snacks with items found in food pantries, according to Susan Dyson, food pantry specialist with Catholic Charities.
Another idea is to start a cooking cooperative in your neighborhood. Under this model, one family cooks for the group on night one and delivers to each household and then another family cooks for the group on night two and delivers to each household (the pattern continues).
Meal costs are shared. "The idea being it is cheaper to cook in quantity and healthier to have home-cooked meals than to eat fast food carry out," Carter said.
Get your hands dirty
Richland County has at least 26 community gardens, according to the North End Community Improvement Collaborative's website.
Community gardens serve as a significant source of produce, especially in food deserts.
Amy Burns, occupational therapist at Prospect Elementary School, spearheaded the transformation of the school's butterfly garden into a produce garden in order to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students and families in the neighborhood.
Her mission -- in addition to increasing access to healthy foods -- has been to inspire people to become stewards of the environment and take ownership of their community and physical health.
Another idea is getting involved in The Ohio State University at Mansfield's urban micro-farm and RUSS (Reaching Urban Students with Sustainability) garden.
The micro-farm will be used to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for the campus cafeteria and at a reduced cost for north end Mansfield residents.
The RUSS garden will be available for use by the college and local schools to give students an interactive educational experience.
"We want to design (the RUSS garden) as a classroom," said Kip Curtis, assistant professor of history at Ohio State Mansfield. "We see a potential for cross-curricular learning, and a real potential for reaching the hard-to-reach learners."
The idea is that additional micro-farms and RUSS gardens will be built in Mansfield.
"If we're successful, by next summer, we will have a three-year couple million dollar grant to do a pilot, and that pilot will consist of beginning to build some of these (micro-farms) on land bank properties, training some urban farmers and getting that aggregation system up and running," Curtis said.
The pilot project will train between 15 and 30 urban farmers, though many more could be trained down the road.
To learn more about the micro-farm/RUSS garden project and how to get involved, contact Cindy Wood, Director of Community Relations and Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-755- 4113, or contact Kip Curtis at 419-755-4380 or email@example.com.
One of the problems with food insecurity is that it increases the risk of health-related issues.
According to Feeding America's Hunger in America 2014 survey, many households served by the Feeding America network of food banks include people coping with a chronic disease that is impacted by dietary intake.
A possible solution is the implementation of a food pharmacy program.
ProMedica Toledo Hospital has a food prescription program, allowing any ProMedica patient (with a physician referral) access to either two of ProMedica's food pharmacy locations. The program launched in April 2015.
"It's meant to provide and create access to healthy food options for our patients and a way to improve their health," said dietitian Chloe Plummer.
The process works similar to a prescription for medicine.
"Their doctor will write them a referral and give us some information about the patient's medical background," Plummer said.
The pharmacy is set up like a choice food pantry, serving healthy food options. Nutrition professionals are available to provide assistance in selecting items best suited to the patient's needs.
Obviously not everyone is in a position that can make something like this happen, but raising awareness and generating interest can help.
Another way to connect food-insecure individuals with healthy food items is to go through corner stores.
Richland Public Health's Healthy Corner Store Initiative works to increase the awareness and availability of healthy foods in corner stores. Two examples of this in action are its partnership with Food Land Mini Mart on Park Avenue East and with Olivesburg General Store.
Technical assistance, resources and support are available for any local store owners interested in joining the initiative. For more information, contact health educator Emily Leedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food for thought
We all know food insecurity is a problem, but it doesn't have to be as large of a problem with your help.
Hopefully this article has helped enlighten you and inspire you to be part of the solution, which can take on many forms.
You don't have to open a grocery store in a food desert like these folks (although that wouldn't be opposed). You can start small and use your personal strengths to come up with creative solutions.
Carter suggested communal sharing of resources and knowledge. Get several families or households together to purchase items in bulk and then divvy them up; share techniques and strategies for couponing; create food co-ops which involve membership and self-management.
Have an idea that's not mentioned? Please share in the comment section below.