Put the 'Give' Back in Thanksgiving: Food Justice in Cincinnati

Written by Erin Michel, graduate assistant for The Graduate School.

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for family, fellowship, and let’s face it, a little bit of gluttony and indulgence. While it’s certainly important to enjoy traditions and reconnect with loved ones, celebrants should avoid hyper focusing on the “thanks” aspect of the festivities to the detriment of the “giving.” For many in our community, Thanksgiving is not a time where tables are overflowing with home-baked goods and houses are filled with laughter and celebration. Any holiday can be a difficult reminder of loneliness or lack, but Thanksgiving in particular, with its emphasis on food, can be a challenging time for those of us who may be experiencing food insecurity. (If you are experiencing food insecurity, more information is available below).

Students walking on campus in the fall, with yellow foliage.

Food Insecurity: Campus and Community

Hunger in Cincinnati is bigger problem than you might think. According to the The Freestore Food Bank’s data from 2016, more than 1 in 7 Cincinnatians are at risk of hunger, and over 80,000 children in the area do not know where their next meal will come from. And it would seem that this issue has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—Freestore has observed a staggering 60% uptick in demand for their services since March 2020, and they are struggling to meet this need. Food insecurity isn’t limited to adults and families, either; It is a huge issue within college campuses, including UC. The College and University Food Bank Alliance estimates that 30% of college students nationwide are food insecure—within the Bearcat community, this would be over 13,000 students. Further compounding the issue is the fact that students face unique challenges in dealing with food insecurity. To access SNAP benefits, most would have to work at least 20 hours per week, which is impossible for many full-time students. Additionally, dining halls are closed over holiday breaks, but many students remain on campus with nowhere to go, forced to scrounge for food or go hungry. For more information about campus hunger in the region, check out this Cincinnati Enquirer Article on local campus food insecurity.  

The good news is that a range of initiatives exist in Cincinnati and within UC itself to fight food insecurity and expand access to nutritious, quality meals. Check out a list below of ways to give back and give food this Thanksgiving, as well as organizations to pursue long-term involvement with in order to keep the food justice work going all year round. Finally, some resources are shared for gradaute students who may themselves be experiencing food insecurity. 

Thanksgiving Food Justice Events

  • Bearcats Pantry fall food donation drive: For students who want to fight campus food insecurity within the UC, the Bearcats Pantry will be collecting items and monetary donations from now through December 3 to ensure food access to all students through Thanksgiving and Winter break periods. UC community members can support the Fall Food Drive by making a financial giftmaking a purchase from the BCP's Amazon wishlist, or dropping non-perishable items in designated bins located in TUC, the Campus Recreation Center, CARE/Crawley Building and University Hall. Supporters are encouraged to review the list of most needed itemsTo learn more about the resources that BCP provides or to get in contact, visit their webpage.

  • Give Back Cincinnati Fall Feast: Give Back Cincinnati is a highly active volunteer organization geared towards 20 and 30-something young professional Cincinnatians. They have a range of social events on top of their regular volunteer programs, so joining is a wonderful way to expand your network in addition to giving back to the community. One of their biggest events of the year, Fall Feast, involves a chef-prepared turkey dinner and celebration at the Duke Energy Convention center, free to any community member who needs it. In addition to food, the event features free coats, live music, free books for all ages, inflatable play areas for kiddos, and big screen TVs which will air football games. Volunteers are needed both for serving and logistics on the day of the event (November 21) as well as prep shifts on the 22, 23, and 24. Register to volunteer at this link.

  • City Gospel Mission Thanksgiving exchange:  City Gospel Mission, a wraparound homelessness and substance use recovery nonprofit, runs a limited-time grocery store selling Thanksgiving meal supplies to low-income individuals at a very low price. Volunteers are needed from November 15-22 to run operations ranging from sorting items, stocking shelves, customer services, bagging, and carrying groceries to cars.

  • St. Vincent de Paul Thanksgiving Baskets: St. Vincent de Paul is seeking volunteers for their November 23 food basket distribution event at Neyer Outreach Center. Volunteers will sort, carry, and bag food. The organization also runs coat, toy, and food distributions throughout the holiday season and is seeking volunteers for those events as well. Visit this link to register for their seasonal volunteer opportunities.

  • Hungry Turkey Half Marathon and 5K: For those who like to give back while getting in some exercise, consider participating in the Hungry Turkey race on November 27. Registration starts at $37 for adults and all proceeds go to support Whole Again, a nonprofit which provides meals, academic enrichment, and recreational opportunities for kids in Cincinnati. For those of us who do not relish the thought of running so soon after consuming turkey and pie, Hungry Turkey is also seeking volunteers to staff water stations, check in participants, marshal courses, and  more. 

Food Insecurity: A Year-Round Issue

While the events listed above are certainly a meaningful way to give back this Thanksgiving, it is important to remember that food insecurity unfortunately affects our community all year round. All the organizations above provide opportunities for volunteering and donation at any time of year, and many also operate special seasonal food giveaways at Christmastime as well. Below is a list of some additional Cincinnati-based organizations that, while not hosting Thanksgiving-specific events, are certainly worth your time and involvement. 

  • Last Mile Food Rescue: One of the most frustrating aspects of food injustice is the reality that good food goes to waste every day, thrown out from dining halls, restaurants, and grocery stores. In fact, Last Mile estimates that more than 40% of food goes to waste before it can be eaten. Last Mile recognizes that fresh food belongs with the community instead of landfills, and in response, they have developed a revolutionary app-based food rescue program. Volunteers use the org’s GPS app to coordinate food pickups, transporting food from donors to nonprofit distribution partners—for more information on signing up, click here. Last Mile also appreciates monetary donations. The organization, which started recently in October 2020, has already rescued over 1.3 million pounds of food! 

  • Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council: If you are interested in getting involved with food justice in Cincinnati on a more big-picture level, the Food Policy Council is a great way to perform systems-level advocacy in our community. They are involved in a wide range of initiatives, from conducting research to better understand the issue of food insecurity to holding forums and workshops to educate the public as well as performing legislative advocacy at city, county, and regional governmental levels. To become a member, fill out and submit this application form. 

For Graduate Students Facing Food Insecurity

Campus food insecurity is not just an undergraduate issue. In fact, one recent study which surveyed 263 graduate students found that more than half of their sample reported experiencing food insecurity. While it’s great to give back and donate/volunteer if you can (and all of the organizations listed above are a good place to start), readers who might be experiencing food insecurity themselves should feel encouraged to get involved with the above organizations from a recipient standpoint. Additionally, students should be aware of UC-specific resources that might be of assistance. The Bearcats food pantry (listed above) is open to graduate students as well as undergraduates, and offers hygiene and cleaning items as well as professional attire in addition to food items, meal vouchers, and to-go bags. Beyond the pantry, all graduate students in need are also eligible for emergency funding from the Dean of Students Office. Also, the Office of International Students has established an international student-specific emergency funding program for “individuals who have a severe and unforeseen economic hardship as a result of emergency circumstances in their home country.” Finally, graduate students may be eligible for a short-term, no-interest loan through the Office of the Bursar. 

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you give back to your campus and your community if you are able by donating time, money, or supplies. The holiday season is a perfect time to get started, but the work never stops. And if you or a loved one are experiencing food insecurity yourselves, I encourage you to reach out to food justice organizations in our community as well as resources within UC itself. Luckily, there are a lot of great organizations in our community that approach this issue from a range of different perspectives, including direct food distribution, food rescue, legislative advocacy, and philanthropy. So, on November 25 if you are sitting down to enjoy a full turkey dinner, take a second to think about your neighbors with an empty table, and consider how you can help.