Covering Coronavirus: Athens, Ohio




CRYSTAL: I really enjoy doing this, I enjoy being here at work. I enjoy feeling like I am helping people through this coronavirus. People are hungry. People have to be fed. It’s a necessity. 


RANEY ARONSON: This is the Frontline Dispatch.  


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE.  


Covering Coronavirus is a special series of conversations with our journalists in the field. They’re reporting on this pandemic and how it’s affecting lives across the world, moment to moment. 


NEUMANN: There’s so many people that are now falling into this world who for the first time will be experiencing this food insecurity as they’ve lost their jobs and as cities shut down. 


ARONSON: That’s reporter and filmmaker Jezza Neumann. 


He had been working on a documentary for us about the lives of poor children in battleground states leading up to the presidential election. But when the coronavirus hit, the story took a dramatic turn.  


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH catalyst fund.


ARONSON: Jezza, hey, tell me where you are right now. 


NEUMANN: Hi, Raney. I'm in Athens, Ohio at the moment. 


ARONSON: So, Athens County I know it’s quite rural. Help us see… what does it look like there? 


NEUMANN: It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely stunning. You know, it’s that strange sort of juxtaposition of the beauty of the area set against the potential devastation but also the issues that people are already facing. This is a really poor area. I’ve never witnessed an area with these sorts of levels of poverty. 


And you see it visually in terms of the houses and the living spaces. They’re all needing a bit of tender love and care. So the scenery is very beautiful but still, you’ll see rundown trainers, shacks with paint peeling off them. They need that lick of paint but you know, people can’t afford it. 


ARONSON: So, I know you called us a number of weeks ago, and I know it was a really big point that you were filming. Can you tell us a little bit about that phone call and what you told us? 


NEUMANN: Yeah, sure. It was on a Thursday and I was at the shelter in Cincinnati. It was at the time that we're still sort of trying to gain access to various different locations and characters. And I basically sat at the desk with Denise who ran the shelter. And I witnessed as she saw the schools closing.


ARCHIVE: ...the Ohio Department of Health, along with Governor Mike DeWine and his team are taking more steps to slow down the coronavirus, public and private schools will close come Monday afternoon... 


GOV. MIKE DEWINE: We frankly have no idea at this point whether that will extend beyond that, but people can count on the next three weeks that kids will not be will not be in school…


ARONSON: Talk to me a little about with the schools being closed, what's happening? 


NEUMANN: Since the schools closed, I think that that really sort of hit home with many people. And that's when you really start to see huge levels of altruism. I think most people sort of when they knew the kids were going to suffer that really kicked people into action. 


So these amazing teachers and staff at the schools have all now started supporting a network of food delivery to the kids. So I rode on a bus with the Nelsonville and York School District and followed them as the teachers delivered these packs of food.


SCENE TAPE: That only gets one on that yellow house up front, right. The one on the right…


NEUMANN: I mean, some of these kids live incredibly rurally as well and next week, we’re heading out with the Hocking School District and you know, teachers have to run up pathways and run back and get these deliveries done. 


ARONSON: The teachers themselves are delivering the food to their students? 


NEUMANN: Yeah, absolutely. You arrive at the school in the morning, you know, arrive at eight o'clock and you'll see the school Hall filled with teachers, janitors, school cooks, filling bags with food. And then at about 8:30, this whole ream of school buses start lining up and the teachers then fill the school buses and then two or three teachers will head out on that school bus and drive from house to house to house delivering this food. And that's happening across the whole area. 


ARONSON: How did they come up with the idea of teachers themselves delivering it? Was it teachers coming forward to say they want to do something helpful for the community or how did that come about?


NEUMANN: Yes, absolutely. It was the teachers and the schools and the superintendents who basically kind of all get together on a group chat and say, ‘What can we do?’ and so they talked to the food bank and the food bank’s able to supply the food. So there's this real community spirit. 


I mean, I've witnessed teachers just going out and vans with tri-counties food delivery and standing in parking lots near the library where they know that kids will come and deliver out food. Obviously, as things get tighter, they're having to go from maybe every day down to delivering enough food on a Monday to last the week. The school bus drivers are out there, driving the buses. Everybody just wants these kids to be fed.


ARONSON: You’ve been following a family who has been experiencing some of this food insecurity, and the mom, Crystal, actually she herself is working at the food pantry that’s decided to stay open during this pandemic. How are they doing with all this? 


NEUMANN: So Crystal is a single mom.


CRYSTAL: I live here in the plains, Ohio. I have two children who reside with me, Shawn and Dior. I basically grew up in Athens, Ohio. And this has always been home. 


NEUMANN: She is on benefits and receives assistance for her rent. But in order to receive a benefit, she has to do 30 hours work. She chose to work at the Salvation Army because she's someone that wants to give back. She had formerly worked but she had a kidney disease, which meant that she couldn't work any longer. 


And then as this crisis has grown, the Salvation Army gradually lost its volunteers. And so one by one, they fell away. And then some of the volunteers who were elderly were directed, you know, that they shouldn't be there because it's unsafe. So it came to the point that there were only Justin and Darcy, who are the two employees of the Salvation Army, and Crystal left, keeping it open. 


CRYSTAL: Thank you for having all these boxes ready Darcy. Okay, we got one can of pork, one can of vegetable soup, elbow macaroni, black beans, peanut butter.


NEUMANN: And in fact, they were told that they did not need to be there any longer. They were allowed to stay at home but…


SCENE TAPE: ...diced tomatoes…


NEUMANN: ...there was no way they were going to allow that to happen. And Crystal said, Look, if we go home, if I don't do this job…


CRYSTAL: ...can of mixed veggies…


NEUMANN: You know, hundreds of kids will not get fed. And people rely on this food bank.


CRYSTAL: Make sure it's dated... All right. We're gonna wheel this out. 


NEUMANN: And so she's determined to stay out there.


CRYSTAL: It's kind of... This is like a second home. It's like a home away from home honestly. I really enjoy doing this, although I do miss my kids. They're pretty... well, especially Dior is dependent on me, but she's in safe hands with Grandma so I'm really comfortable with that but I enjoy being here at work. I enjoy feeling like I am helping. I'm helping people through this coronavirus. People are hungry, people have to be fed, it’s a necessity. 


Let’s see what these people are doing… Hi, have you guys called in to get a food box? Not yet? OK, well if you park and give a call we can get your food box ready. But the lines may be a little busy. It’s been crazy today. But if you wait and get that call in or even if you want to go somewhere and try to get your call in, we’ll bring you your box when it’s ready. Alright.


NEUMANN: Obviously that then comes with huge anxiety for Shawn. Shawn's a really sensitive kid Raney and, you know, you can see the sort of anxiety levels in him. He's already been through quite a lot in his life. And so seeing his mom out there, it does worry him, particularly because him and his mom are very close and they do talk. So he's also aware of her anxiety about what she's doing. So I think for Shawn, it's a tricky space he’s navigating. 


SHAWN: Because of the virus, we have to be more conservative on the food, not be as picky because I'm usually really picky. I have to like, eat whatever I get. I usually eat like a lot of cereal during the day. Now I have to like only eat it for breakfast because we have to save up on it. 


NEUMANN: He does talk about you know, his concerns for his mother.


NEUMANN: What do you worry the most about?


SHAWN: About family getting sick or potentially getting it because my mom when she works she has… She goes about people's cars and puts food boxes in the trunk and there still could be like, any type of virus that she can catch.


NEUMANN: They are taking extra precautions and they are wearing gloves and masks and it is a curbside pickup but still, you know, sometimes someone will still get out of their car and get within six feet of Crystal. So, she can't control that. And I think for  Shawn, he's aware of that. So it does play on his mind. 


One thing also is obviously the news is playing out at home and moms are reading things on the internet. And so I think also with the kids, you know, they're feeding off of that, they're hearing that and they're hearing about the numbers of deaths, et cetera. So I think also that can play on their minds as well. 


ARONSON: Jezza, you have been a person who has told so many stories through the lens of how children are feeling and experiencing poverty, but you know, other issues as well. What are you seeing that feels unique to you through the lens of the children?


NEUMANN: I think the kids are starting to see their vulnerability in a way. I mean, it's not something I've really witnessed is where, you know, quite often you talk to kids in poverty, and they don't see themselves necessarily in poverty, because it's the life they’re used to. So now what I'm seeing is, you know, higher levels of anxiety, a higher sort of knowledge in terms of why they're at risk, you know, the the reliance of their parents on food, and how they'll get that food, so I think that's something I'm learning from these kids is I think their awareness much more of their situation. 


ARONSON: You spent a lot of time in the Southeast Food Bank of Ohio, which I know is a distribution center supplying food to a lot of the pantries in that area. How have they adapted their operation? 


NEUMANN: Yeah, so the Southeast Food Bank has actually the sort of warehousing of the food. They're the ones that get the federal funding and then bring all the food in. And then they distribute to food pantries. But this whole network of food bank and food pantries is run on volunteers pretty much. And most of those volunteers are in the high risk category because they're elderly or retired. So what you've seen is a vast tract of volunteers no longer volunteering, since social distancing came into place and stay at home orders. Compounded to that is another section of volunteers were also students, but none of them are back here in Athens any longer. 


So with its loss of volunteers, they had to fill this hole somehow. Otherwise, they're incredibly worried that the whole food distribution system would implode. And so the governor of Ohio called up the National Guard and also the Ohio Army Reserve, and they are now helping the food bank and food pantries. So we watched these National Guard guys packing boxes. And then we're also going to follow them as they help out with food distributions as well. 


ARONSON: I'm wondering if you can talk about what happens as volunteers keep dropping off. 


NEUMANN: So as volunteers keep dropping off food pantries are struggling to stay open. You know, we've heard of food pantries that are at risk of closing and we actually witnessed one food pantry that had to close its doors. So that's where everyone's stepping in to try and do curbside deliveries instead. But that's the problem with the loss of volunteers is that there's a high risk that more and more pantries will have to close. 


And this is really, really significant because if food banks and food pantries were no longer distributing food, that would put a massive pressure on supermarkets, and they are already creaking. And so that's when you could end up with some sort of chaos because you'd have all these people reliant on food pantries and banks, who would now no longer be getting food from that source.


ARONSON: Your work over the years has shown us how fragile the food system is in America. I mean, you've really taken us inside people's homes and into this story in a way with multiple families experiencing with homelessness, but also food insecurity. Is there anything on the ground right now that's surprising you?


NEUMANN: What's really surprising me I think, is actually visually seeing this. I think, you know, when you look at the footage that we filmed, and the pictures we took of the food delivery at the fairgrounds, you know, you kind of take a look at the photo and you see there's some cars and then suddenly you realize these cars are looping right round. 


And we witnessed car after car after car for hour after hour, coming to collect food and for the first time, I think I really saw visually the scale of what this means. Because normally you're in a food pantry, sure, and you might see one or two people come in at a time or you may be in a pantry that's only open once a week. So yeah, you'll see a bit of a rush and that might be 10 people at a time. This is where for the first time I've seen hundreds of people come in to collect food. 




NEUMANN: That was not something I'd ever seen before. What I saw at the fairgrounds is definitely not something I'd ever seen before. I think for me, though, going forward, it's kinda like how is this gonna play out? Question for me is: will it last? What happens when the virus is over? Because when the virus is over, these families we are following today will still be in this situation, they won't be getting jobs that are coming back.


 And for many of them, the situation will have been compounded by the fact that what little work they did have they haven't had. So that's that's the worry. And will the altruism stay? You know, will we care now about poor people? Because many more have witnessed what it's like to be poor? Or will it all go back to normal?


ARONSON: Thank you, Jezza, so much for taking the time and talking with us about this. 


NEUMANN: Oh, no worries at all Raney thank you very much for talking to me today.


ARONSON: We’re going to be bringing you more dispatches like this as the pandemic unfolds. You can find more of our reporting on the Coronavirus and its impact online at FRONTLINE dot org. 


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Lauren Ezell is senior story editor. 


Sarah Childress is our senior editor. 


Frank Koughan is senior producer. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette.


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.

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