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Local organizations unite to fight food insecurity in Oxford during coronavirus

<p>ShareFest volunteers picked up food and personal care items donated in the residence halls. </p>

ShareFest volunteers picked up food and personal care items donated in the residence halls.

For Ann Fuehrer, director of the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPPS), a single day hosts an array of activities. 

From shopping at Kroger, to making sure the shelves are stocked, to answering emails and phone calls, to supervising volunteers, Fuehrer, who took over as director in July 2019, leads one of many efforts to help those struggling with food insecurity in Oxford. 

Fuehrer knows these initiatives are even more important in light of the novel coronavirus and the recent state-mandated stay-at-home order

“There’s a lot more need because a lot of the local businesses are closing or laying people off, and our customers are experiencing more economic insecurity than they typically do,” Fuehrer said. 

TOPPS serves those living in the Talawanda School District (TSD) and lets individuals select items depending on the number of people in their household. As of late, health and safety precautions at the food pantry itself have been taken into account.  Fuehrer posted a sign-up sheet on the TOPPS website that said only five symptom-free individuals would be allowed to work at one time. 

“I just reflected on how to best protect [the] social distance of our customers and volunteers and still distribute food to people in need,” Fuehrer said. 

TOPPS usually relies heavily on Miami University student volunteers, many of whom have left campus after classes were moved online. However, the remaining students have helped facilitate projects, like ShareFest, that partner with the food pantry. 

Rob Abowitz, an associate director of Residence Life at Miami, said ShareFest has been around for 15 years in Oxford. It’s a registered non-profit organization that donates food, clothing and household goods to those in need. ShareFest’s board includes individuals from the city, university and community, including Abowitz. 

ShareFest typically occurs in May, at the end of each spring semester. But this year, due to Miami classes being moved online, the date has been moved up. . Instead of collecting a variety of items, this year the project focused solely on food and personal care items. 

Student volunteers from EcoReps and Zero-Waste Oxford placed boxes in residence halls, allowing students to donate non-perishable items before leaving their dorms. Food was then picked up by community volunteers. 

Abowitz said numbers for ShareFest are far lower this year because students were moving out of the dorms at many different times. He said roughly 1,400 students still haven’t fully moved out. 

Many students are still waiting on directions from the university on when it is safe to return to campus to gather the rest of their things, but when they do return, they’ll still be able to donate items if they choose. 

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“We have collected lots of food that’s going to be helpful for the Oxford families who are no longer getting the benefit of school-supported meals,” Abowitz said. “It’s not all the most nutritious stuff, but they’re going to get plenty of calories.”

So far, more than 3,000 pounds of food has been collected from the residence halls for this year’s ShareFest. According to the TOPPS Annual Report, the pantry served 497 households and donated 137,718 pounds of food in 2019.

According to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau Report, 47 percent of people in Oxford live in poverty, and the median income (from 2014-2018) is around $27,000. For comparison, one year of out-of-state tuition at Miami University costs around $36,000

Around one-third of students in the TSD receive reduced or free breakfast and lunch, which prompted the creation of a plan to ensure these students didn’t go without meals while schools are closed. 

Holli Morrish, TSD director of communications and public engagement, said the district has a safety/emergency planning committee that meets to discuss a range of emergency situations. Two months ago, after being told there was a possibility schools would be closing due to the coronavirus, the district got to work prioritizing food and technology.

This led to the TSD student meal program, which provides students in the district five days of meals starting on Monday, March 23 — one breakfast and one lunch per day — served by volunteers. Families can pick up the meals at a variety of locations, and this initiative will most likely continue until face-to-face classes resume. 

“We have a variety of volunteers, but mostly we are using our employee volunteers to actually work at each site and distribute the food,” Morrish said. “We feel it's important to have people that our families know and trust to do this.” 

The coronavirus has shuttered schools and non-essential businesses, but organizations and groups like TSD and TOPPS continue to provide for the Oxford community. 

“We’ve collected far less [food] than we normally do,” Abowitz said, “but we’re proud that we were at least able to get this amount.”