Founded in 1971, the FreeStore is the region's largest non-profit provider of food, supplying 20 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana and serving more than 160,000 individuals. The FreeStore's annual holiday fundraising campaign, Hunger Is Unacceptable, this year aims to raise $1.5 million by Jan. 31.
While the winter holidays generate the most attention to the issue of hunger in Greater Cincinnati, the work of addressing it goes on yearlong, according to John Young, president of the FreeStore.
In addition to its own locations on Liberty Street and Tennessee Avenue, the organization supplies 450 non-profit groups, including soup kitchens, shelters and child-care and elderly centers.
Residents need not look to foreign countries for examples of poverty, Young says.
"To give you an example: 90,000 people who live in Hamilton County live in poverty," he says. "And we see over a third of them right here every year just at this distribution center on Liberty Street and the FreeStore. So that's how deep a penetration of that poverty population we are able to serve."
Unexpected house guests
The FreeStore receives about 10 percent of its inventory from canned food drives; 20 percent from purchased products, primarily high protein items; and 70 to 75 percent from donated products from companies such as Kroger, which has been a strong supporter through the years, Young says.
"The truth is it's pretty humbling," he says. "It's a look at the enormity of the need, and I look at the unbelievable generosity of people -- it's just inspiring. It makes you want to do more, and the little bit that I do is miniscule in comparison to all these donors, volunteers and all of these companies that go out of the way to reach out to these people. It's quite a story."
During the Thanksgiving distribution Nov. 21, the store buzzed as volunteers distributed boxed holiday meals to what seemed to be an endless stream of clients. To qualify for ongoing service, families need to meet federal poverty guidelines, have proof of household size and proof of residence for the past 30 days, according to FreeStore development director Jennifer Ebelhar. However, for holiday meals the organizations skips most of the qualification process.
Volunteers and staff workers expeditiously moved clients though queues, allowing them to easily pick up their food.
"We've done this for so many years we sort of have it down," Ebelhar says.
A client named Flora, who gave no last name, says she found herself housing her three grandchildren after a legal mishap with her daughter left her with hungry mouths and no food for the holiday. With little time to fill out paper work, she says she just showed up and hoped for the best.
"I go through this with my daughter on and off," Flora says. "I got the kids for the next month or so, and I didn't have no conditions or nothing for them. I just showed up today and she gave me enough for the whole family."
Helping those like Flora who have fallen on hardship spurred volunteers like Larry Burgenstein to donate his time. As a 10-year veteran, the chemical engineer says he dedicates his vacation time each year to help out. He says he feels moved by the good-natured gratitude of the clients that he sees each year, especially when he carries food to their cars.
"I just see people who need help who are hungry and don't have as much," Burgenstein says. "It's Thanksgiving, so you should be thankful for how your life has been during the past year. And if you can help others, that's great."
Not enough turkey for all
But outsiders shouldn't get the wrong impression from people picking up food, according to one client. They're grateful, but that sense of gratitude hasn't eclipsed their pride.
Rose, who preferred her last name not be used, says she's certainly not at the FreeStore by choice, but people "do what they gotta do to get by." She says many times child support payments get delayed or people simply aren't making high enough wages. On this day, Rose laments having a small family, as she only qualifies for a chicken and not a turkey.
"They're doing the best that they can," she says. "They just don't have enough turkey for everyone. But you just take what you get and you're thankful for it. I only have three in my family, but I'd still like to have a turkey. But I'm thankful for what I got."
Taking on some of the more strenuous activities were members of the Western Hills High School football team and 14 players from the Cincinnati Bengals. It's hard to miss 6-foot-3, 350-lb. Bengals defensive tackle Sam Adams as he effortlessly carries boxes to people's cars.
Adams says he felt the need to get out and help those who are less fortunate. Also toting boxes, Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker wore a contagious grin as he joked and chatted with those waiting for buses and rides. Rucker says being a player sometimes gives people the impression they feel a sense of entitlement, but he says in truth the players are just regular guys.
"It feels good to be able to give back," Rucker says. "We're really fortunate to be in the position that we are to come down here and help out and give these people a happy Thanksgiving. You couldn't ask for anything better -- you just need to see the smile on the little kids' faces."
To donate or volunteer at the FreeStore, call 513-482-FOOD or visit freestorefoodbank.org.