AKRON — The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank kicked off its annual Harvest for Hunger campaign Thursday with a goal of raising $1.3 million, enough to provide 5.2 million meals to those in need.
Last year, the campaign blew past its fundraising goals, raising $1.36 million and more than 135,000 pounds of food — the equivalent of 5.54 million meals.
"That isn’t enough," said Shelly Hinton, vice president of the food bank. "We won’t stop until every individual in our community has regular access to safe and nutritious food."
That donation push put the organization ahead of its goal to fill the hunger gap by 2025. By the end of this year, the food bank should be on pace to surpass its 2020 benchmark, Dan Flowers, president and CEO of the food bank, said during Thursday’s kickoff event at the John S. Knight Center.
"We certainly can’t do this alone," Flowers said. "We know we have big work ahead of us this year, but we have a great plan. And most importantly, we have all of you."
Millions of meals
The food bank distributes food and services to more than 500 pantries, hot-meal sites, shelters and other programs across Stark, Summit, Carroll, Holmes, Medina, Portage, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties.
Last year, food bank distributions increased 14 percent to 32.9 million pounds of food and other essential items, including 8.5 million pounds of fresh produce. That increase provided 2.6 million more meals than the previous year.
Harvest for Hunger is the food bank’s largest fundraising campaign and one of the largest such campaigns in the country. It raises food and funds for four Northeast Ohio food banks — the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Second Harvest Food Bank of Mahoning Valley and the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio — that provide hunger relief in 21 counties.
According to the food bank, 1 in 7 people in Northeast Ohio face hunger issues, often referred to as "food insecurity."
About 15 percent of Stark County residents — 52,000 people — are food insecure, said Jim Porter, publisher and CEO of GateHouse Media Ohio and honorary co-chair of the campaign.
"Hunger is a real need that we must address before we, as a community, can be successful at anything we attempt," he said. "Our kids can’t learn when they’re hungry. Our employees can’t work when they’re hungry. We can’t go to the future without addressing this need today."
Also serving as a campaign co-chair is Dr. Brian Harte, president of Cleveland Clinic Akron General.
Food insecurity can lead to such health issues as high blood pressure, kidney disease and other chronic illness, Harte said. "It’s not something we can walk away from."
The annual kickoff breakfast traditionally has been held at the food bank’s headquarters. This year, the event moved to the Knight Center in downtown Akron to accommodate a larger crowd.
The event rallies businesses, organizations and individuals to start their own food and funds drives. According to the food bank, a $1 donation can provide four meals, while a donation of 1.2 pounds of food can provide one meal.
Speakers also emphasized the importance of volunteering.
"You don’t choose to be needy. You don’t choose to be poor. Those people are doing everything they can do," said William Shrivers, chair of the food bank’s board of directors.
Shrivers, president of the Canton/?Mahoning Valley region of Huntington National Bank, urged folks to tell a friend about the food bank and the work that goes on there every day. "I promise they’ll get committed."
The food bank does more than provide meals, Flowers said. It combats loneliness and a whole range of psychological maladies, not only for those clients, but also for volunteers and organizers.
Volunteers, many of them retirees, come to the food bank to get out of their house and to make friends. Students with disabilities — the food bank calls them Hunger Heroes — work in the sorting room. Former clients, who come to pantries or meal sites for help, often return later to lend their time to others, he said.
Flowers used examples from some of his favorite films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Star Wars, to encourage people to be their own heroes — and to find a friend to help along the journey.
"We are engaged in something worthy and good. Something that can be better because you were a part of it," he said. "Something that can relieve loneliness and sadness, help kids do better in school, starve off disease and built a better community. We need you."
Flowers ended his address with a message: We love you.
"We generally see (people) when they’ve got no place else to turn, when they’re most alone, most vulnerable, most desperate ... When they’re in the throes of addiction, homeless, cold, weary, mad, hurt. Those are our people," he said.
If the food bank can embrace clients when they have nothing to offer in return, of course it can embrace and love its volunteers, he said.
"If you’re lonely, if you need a friend, I invite you to come down to the food bank. We’ll be your friend. If you’re tired of sitting alone, come sit with us," Flowers said.
He encouraged those who are feeling overwhelmed and tired to keep going.
"You’re not going to be handed something you can’t deal with. You matter. You’ve got what it takes," he said. "So steel yourself. Lock in on something that you can improve and get after it."
To help or organize a food and fund drive, see the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank online or call 330-535-6900.
Jessica Holbrook is a staff writer for The Canton Repository.