MY FRONT PORCH VIEW A look at an impoverished rust-belt town

by Cindy Miller

It was 2008, when I returned to my hometown after nearly thirty years of living in a multitude of other small towns and cities across Northeast Ohio and Western Michigan.  My vocation was in production of print media, in various forms, as a commercial artist, photographer, writer, and later in commercial printing.

In 1978, my chance of finding a well-paying job in the upper Ohio Valley, for someone with my degree and education, was bleak.  Pittsburgh, where I went to art school, was saturated with artists and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh instructor suggested I head for any city in the Western Reserve where jobs in my field were plentiful. That was good advice I followed.

 I grew up in Toronto, Ohio just 8 miles north of the county seat of Steubenville in Jefferson County. Although the steel industry locally was on the decline due to the influx of Japanese steel flooding the American market, quality of life was still fairly good in the valley, despite the exodus of unemployed steel workers and their families leaving. Some manufacturing companies, eventually, closed their doors for good.  Some are hanging on with minimal workforce.  

 Many people have exhausted their unemployment benefits, despite multiple extensions.  They no longer could afford to own a vehicle and are now stranded without transportation to get to a job. Although Steubenville still has minimal public transportation, Toronto, Ohio does not.  Life is hard in this small town.

 Donations are down at local food pantries while the number of those in need of help has soared.  

 His Hands Extended Food Pantry, operated by Abundant Life First Assembly of God Church, faces closing after serving the residents in need for nearly 20 years.  This church took over operation from one of the town's Methodist churches many years ago.

 Toronto's food pantry serves 150-plus families who live within the city limits of Toronto-- a town with the population of 5,091 according to 2010 census figures.  The monthly costs of operation range between $1,900 to $2,400 which includes rent and utilities, plus purchase of food and transportation costs for delivery from Mid-Ohio Food Bank near Columbus. 

 According to Pastor Lloyd Hill, administrator of His Hands Extended Food Pantry, his church does not have the room in its small basement to accommodate storage of food and the people the pantry serves, and the basement is not handicapped accessible.  A majority of Toronto's churches aren't, other than chair lifts added to stairways leading down to their basements.  Many of the churches in town were built in the late 19th century. Thus became the need to rent a storefront that was accommodating to those utilizing wheelchairs and scooters.

 Inflation has played a major role in the economics of running this particular food pantry.  The stark comparison lies with the costs of acquiring 2,000 pounds of canned and dry non-perishables; $393 in 2000 and $900 for this month's order which consists of canned corn, green beans, peaches, boxed 1% milk, cereal, macaroni and cheese and frozen blueberries.  Meat is donated monthly by Riesbeck’s Market; a locally owned grocery chain.

 Many smaller local area food pantries were presented with the opportunity to consolidate with the food pantry run by the Urban Mission in Steubenville, but unfortunately this opportunity would prove challenging for Toronto residents, as well as for people who live in the villages of Empire and Stratton; a few miles north of Toronto.  

 According Pastor Hill's wife Cindy, "Toronto needs its own food pantry because many of the people who come here (to the pantry) lack transportation to get to Steubenville."

 At the beginning of July, it was questionable whether there would be enough food for those who would show up in the first hour of the July 20th distribution.  Thanks to media attention from two Ohio Valley television stations and the daily newspaper published in Steubenville, monetary donations of close to $1,000 have come in to aid in the purchase of this month's order.  Local residents also made contributions of food.

 Volunteers are plentiful on distribution day; funding is not.  It is still questionable if there will be an August food distribution.

 As Cindy Hill said, "We can only foresee one month at a time." 

 The pantry, at 217 N. Fourth St., which has been operating in the Gem City for more than 20 years, may close its doors due to a downturn in private donations, according to the Rev. Lloyd Hill, pastor of the Abundant Life First Assembly of God Church, which is the administrator for the pantry.

 Hill also blamed the general economic climate in the Ohio Valley, adding that "it might look good on paper, but not in reality.

 "Our operating budget has been $1,800 to $2,500 per month in the past," Hill continued. "That's enough to give people the food they really need. We supply about 14 to 18 meals per [food pantry] family here in Toronto. We give away a lot of food."

 The pantry also distributes meat and pastries from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays and Wednesdays, said Hill.

 He noted there are plenty of volunteers willing to help, and the pantry receives donations of meats and pastries from the Toronto Riesbeck's grocery store, which he was said was "instrumental" in keeping the pantry stocked. The pantry also receives monetary assistance from the Toronto Service Committee, the city's recycling program and other city churches. The pantry also has to pay rent for its space on Fourth Street.

 "But we need to give away more than just pastries and meat," said Hill, adding the pantry has to pay for canned and packaged goods purchased from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank in Grove City.

"The prices (for food) have been going up," said Hill. "We currently have no funds to purchase more food for this month. We don't know what we're going to do. We need regular donations to keep moving forward."

 "We've lost some income since (former pantry director) Tom Devlin left and moved closer to be with his family," said Hill, adding private donations have since dried up. "People really liked and trusted Tom. I think that's had an impact on the decline in personal gifts."

 Hill also had bad news about the Toronto Youth Center, which has been operating next to the pantry for the past two years.

 "The youth center is closing this month, also," Hill said, adding a lack of steady funding is forcing the closure.

 "July 20 is the next scheduled food distribution," Hill continued, adding that in the previous two months the pantry has given food to more than 150 families. "If there aren't funds by then we'll have to close the building and discontinue the pantry. This is the first time the food pantry has been in this situation."

Hill said those interested in donating can make checks payable to the His Hands Extended food pantry, 1009 N. Fourth St., Toronto, OH 43964. Donations may be delivered in person by entering the back entrance of the pantry from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle August 2013 Cleveland, Ohio