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A year after Joe Burrow’s Heisman speech, Ohio food pantry is fighting hunger amid the pandemic

A year ago, Joe Burrow dedicated part of his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech to addressing the issue of hunger in his Ohio hometown. (Al Drago/AP)

Most of the time these days, it is cold in the Athens County Food Pantry. The operation moved early this year into the old County Home on Ohio’s Route 13, a brick building with a huge front porch that has swings on both sides and wide farmhouse windows. In March, a long table was placed in front of one of those windows. Volunteers could open it and place food on the table while keeping a safe distance. In the winter, chill rushes in.

“It’s getting a little cold when we have people coming and they’re opening that window,” said Karin Bright, the food pantry’s president. “But it’s colder for the people on the porch waiting for food.”

One year ago Monday, the Athens County Food Pantry became, in Bright’s recollection, the most famous food pantry in the world. Native son Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy for his wondrous season quarterbacking LSU, which a few weeks later ended with a national championship. During his Heisman acceptance speech, Burrow reserved 31 seconds to tell the sports world about the hunger and poverty many face in his part of rural Ohio.

The speech led to a flood of fundraisers and donations, and it allowed the Athens County Food Pantry to feed more hungry people and expand its operations. One unprecedented year ago, Bright, Burrow and everyone else could not have imagined how much the money and awareness would mean.

“We at the pantry are calling it this magical event that happened, this incredibly magical event, when a young man stood up there, when most people would be thanking their mom and dad and talking about all they had done on the field, and he went completely 180 [degrees] and started talking about this problem in his hometown,” Bright said. “We’re not only grateful for the moneys that came in. We’re also grateful for that opportunity for people to understand the depth of this problem in this country.”

Heisman winner Joe Burrow spoke ‘from the heart’ about hunger in his hometown. Now money is pouring in.

Hunger has long been an overlooked, massive problem in the United States. As the coronavirus pandemic has upended life and thrashed the economy, it has grown even more urgent. In a telephone conversation Sunday, as Bright reflected on the “blessings” her pantry received this year, she stressed the importance of the need to fight hunger in local communities, glaring now and only about to get worse.

“This is a problem that is not going to go away,” Bright said.

Burrow’s 2020 unfolded as a series of monumental events. He led LSU to the national title in January, was selected by his home-state Cincinnati Bengals with the NFL draft’s first pick in April, became the leading candidate for rookie of the year honors in the fall and saw his season end after he tore ligaments in his left knee Nov. 22 during a loss to the Washington Football Team.

He preceded the year with a recognition of others at a moment designed to celebrate him. On Dec. 14, 2019, he stood at a microphone in New York and accepted college football’s highest individual honor. Midway through his speech, he paused and made a deep exhale.

“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area,” Burrow said. “The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home — not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.”

The words drew immediate applause and resonated. Will Drabold, an Athens native and Ohio University alum, started an online fundraiser. Two days after Burrow’s speech, “everything went off-the-wall crazy,” Bright said. Media coverage crested. Other fundraisers popped up, more than 30 in all, some from other countries. Money poured in for days from around the world. By the time it stopped, roughly $650,000 had been raised.

After the initial commotion slowed and she considered the mountain of donations, Bright asked herself: “Is this happening? Is this real?” The pantry had an annual budget of $70,000 to $100,000, almost all of which was spent on immediately needed food. Now, in a matter of days, it had taken in more than half a million dollars.

“What it’s done is give us an opportunity to do things the way we always wanted to do things,” Bright said.

In the past year, the Athens County Food Pantry switched from a first-come, first-served policy to a never-out model — anyone who needs food and comes to the pantry between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the week will get it. The new facility came with increased space and additional refrigeration. The pantry used $350,000 to start the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, with the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio matching every dollar, to maximize long-term impact.

At a recent function, Bright told a small crowd that 2020 had been the worst of times and the best of times. The giant donation had come, unbeknown at the time, when it would be needed more than ever. Athens County has essentially no industry, and Ohio University powers the local economy. The bars, restaurants and shops that rely on students and staff have been decimated without a typical school year, let alone homecoming and graduation.

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When schools closed, the Athens County Food Pantry donated food to the districts directly or to food pantries in areas where schools shut down. It created a program for international students at Ohio University, who may have lost jobs but who do not qualify for government relief programs. The food pantry is almost ready to announce a new program that will allow it to reach into the county with food rather than only being able to help people who come to it.

“Given the fact the pandemic hit, if you had to have donations arrive, it couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time with all that we’ve gone through,” Bright said. “All these things have been made possible because of donations we received.”

Bright said she expects she will see more and more people coming to the food pantry as the pandemic continues. That will be true across the country. Last month, 26 million Americans said they didn’t have enough to eat. The holiday season, Bright said, is usually a bountiful time for food pantries and soup kitchens — people are constantly thinking about food and giving. The summer months can be toughest, when kids lose the protection of school lunch and people with means are focused on vacations. Bright stressed the fact that everywhere needs help.

“This is a problem across the country,” Bright said. “It’s not just us. It’s not just in rural communities. It’s not just in urban communities. It’s everywhere, and it’s something we need to be addressing. In a country as blessed as we are, with the riches we have, the fact that people go to bed hungry is not acceptable.”

Bright has never met Burrow. One day, she hopes to thank him personally for what he said a year ago. Bright and her staff have felt an awesome responsibility to use the funds they received to help as many people as possible. When she thinks back over the past year, she is astonished by how much could happen because of one football player’s speech.

“That’s the thing I think is probably one of the most amazing things about this whole story,” Bright said. “This is a young man who didn’t need to share that kind of a story, and that’s what he chose to use that platform to do. The people in this community are absolutely devoted to him, because they believe, and I truly believe, he really, truly cares about where he came from. It all came from those 31 seconds.”