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Miami employees turn to food pantry

Low wages for university workers contribute to high traffic at OCCP

By Tess Sohngen, Senior Staff Writer

It's 4:08 p.m. on a hot Monday in April, and six cars were already parked between the cemetery and the only food pantry in Oxford, Ohio. Everyone sat in their cars with the windows open, waiting for the pantry to open at five o'clock.

Every month, families and individuals from 300 different homes in the Talawanda School District come to Oxford Community Choice Food Pantry (OCCP) to temporarily mitigate the grumbling in their stomachs and the slimming of their wallets. They come for food, and many who come need these free food items to make it to the next payday without going hungry.

As the clock ticked closer to five o'clock, they moved from their cars -- now nine parked in the sun -- to the shade of the white building. One of the women waiting there was Jan*, a Miami employee of 18 years, who began coming to the OCCP after her friend referred her to it last year.

"I'd like to get to a day where I don't have to use it," said Jan.

But with an hourly income of $12.78 an hour and no other source of income outside Miami, that dream is nearly impossible to achieve.

"The real surprise is when you stop and think about some of the people who come through, people you know through another context. They just struggle, and you don't realize it until they come in looking hungry," said Bob Ratterman, the director of the OCCP.

For one dollar a year, The Oxford Community Choice Pantry calls a one-story white house next to the community graveyard its home. A white picket fence outlines part of the house like the white beard on Ratterman's face and reaches high toward the sky like the hair on his head. Both are a little old and not without charm.

Within the old, stubborn door is one main room where locals shop for their groceries. Ratterman and his staff organized and color-coated the shelves and food according to food groups outlined by MyPlate, the current nutritional guideline outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Beyond the main shopping room, there is only one smaller room available to store extra food.

"We could use more space, but for one dollar a year, we just can't beat that," said Ratterman.

One thing the OCCP is not short on is customers. In 2015, 576 unduplicated households came to the pantry at least once for food. In one day, as many as 62 people have come to the pantry for a bag of food items when money runs out at the end of the month.

"I like to say their money runs out before their month runs out," said Ratterman. The increase in people who come toward the end of the month proves that people are not abusing the system, Ratterman said.

For Jan, her money to pay for food often runs out by the end of the two weeks before her next paycheck. By then, the milk and cereal are usually gone.

"I never have not enough food to go hungry, but I'm not eating prime rib!" said Jan.

Jan is not alone in her battle against food insecurity. Approximately one in seven people in Butler county -- 52,060 total -- are food insecure, and 50 percent do not qualify for SNAP, the newest government rendition of food stamps, according to Feeding America.

"They said I make too much money to get food stamps ... so I was worried that I would still be making too much money to go to the pantry," said Jan.

For an individual living on her own, like Jan, their gross monthly income is below 1,276 dollars. However, the income eligibility is lower for the OCCP.

"They sign a paper that says they fit those income guidelines listed by annual, weekly and monthly, and you do not have to meet all three, only one to qualify," said Ratterman.

Standing across from Jan in the parking lot of the OCCP was Cheryl and one of her grandchildren. She and her husband, both disabled and in their sixties, have been coming to the food pantry for extra food to help raise their three grandchildren.

"I don't know where I would be without them," said Cheryl. "They don't judge you. No one looks down upon you ... I'm just so thankful."

Beside space, the pantry is sometimes short on one other important factor -- choice.

Ratterman and his volunteers try to increase choices until items run out, but what's available to their customers depends wholly on what food items are donated.Most of the food from the OCCP comes from Shared Harvest, the major food bank in Fairfield, Ohio.

"The stuff that's available through Shared Harvest, a lot of times they have corn and green beans, and that's it. So the choices are corn and green beans," said Ratterman.

Currently, the OCCP is hoarding donated cereal boxes for the free bags of extra food they give during the summer.

The SNAP program is just as restrictive in their choices, if not more so. Food insecure individuals cannot purchase ready-to-eat hot meals, cleaning or personal supplies and vitamins with their SNAP benefits, which averaged four dollars per day for an individual in Ohio in 2014, according to the USDA and SNAP program.

With limited choices comes limited variety and often less nutritious diets, which contributes to the obesity and malnutrition that plague those in poverty. Since the OCCP is the only food pantry in Oxford, the choices for where to find help are similarly slim.

The clock ticked closer to five o'clock. Jan, Cheryl and the others began filing into a line outside the pantry in the order in which they arrived. When they left out the exit of the Mount Olivet Cemetery they will have a bag of food to feed them tonight, but they wondered how long that food will last within the two weeks before returning to the pantry.

They wonder and hope, like Jan, for the day they won't need to rely on it.