How the Ohio National Guard is Helping State Food Banks

Major General John C. Harris, Jr. is the commander of the Ohio National Guard, where food insecurity has nearly doubled since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. He sits down to speak with Hari Sreenivasan at the heart of the state’s largest operation, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, it seems during this year of anti-racist uprisings, the National Guard has been synonymous in America with law and order and crushing peaceful protests sometimes. So it might be a surprise to know that they also have humanitarian duties right now. In fact, across all 50 states, these troops are supporting COVID testing sites and also food banks. Major General John C. Harris Jr. is the commander of the Ohio National Guard, where food insecurity has nearly doubled since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. And, here, he’s talking to our Hari Sreenivasan from the state’s largest operation, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It has been an incredibly busy year for the National Guard. Give us an idea of the range of things that your men and women have had to respond to in 2020.


MAJ. GEN. JOHN C. HARRIS JR., COMMANDER, OHIO NATIONAL GUARD: Range is the right word. We originally started this response, believe it or not, working with the Corps of Engineers, thinking that we were going to have to build alternate care sites, alternate facilities for hospitals and other health care organizations that might exceed their capacity. And that’s in the rearview mirror now. We don’t even think about that, because they have dealt with that on their own. But we have put soldiers and airmen in food banks, as you well know, in response to the food insecurity that’s occurred as a result of this coronavirus. We have had to put medical staff into nursing homes as a result of surges there, losing staffing due to positive coronavirus tests. We have put medical staff into our prison systems when they have lost medical staff. We have put soldiers and airmen into our prison systems when they have experienced corrections — loss of corrections officers due to positive coronavirus, civil disturbance response in the wake of the George Floyd killings. And the list just goes on and on and on. We have met just about every kind of staffing surge mission that you could possibly imagine, particularly to our state institutions, but also, in the case of nursing homes, private institutions, if it’s a result of coronavirus.

SREENIVASAN: A lot of people have, in their minds, shifted to thinking about COVID in terms of the fatalities, the infection rates. But we’re literally sitting in a food bank right now. There’s been this steady food insecurity that’s been happening for the whole seven months. And we forget that.

HARRIS: It certainly has. And, in fact, this was one of the first missions to which we responded, because the volunteer support for the food banks dropped off to zero almost immediately. When we really learned about what this disease was and who it affected, we realized that they realized that their volunteer base, many of those people who are older, or who had underlying conditions, it just was not safe for them to come to work and volunteer here. So, this is where the Guard came in. And, early on, we put almost 600 people in the food banks to backfill for those volunteers that they lost.

SREENIVASAN: And you combine that with a surge in demand.

HARRIS: That’s right. That’s right. I was on a call the other day with CEOs of Ohio’s food banks. And I was staggered to learn, for example, the Cleveland call center, their volume, their call volume increased by seven-fold people calling trying to find how they go about getting food, seven-fold increase in people looking to get food for their families. That’s staggering.

SREENIVASAN: And it’s not something that makes the headlines. It’s sort of this — there’s a certain quiet to it. Perhaps it’s the shame of needing help in this way. Perhaps it’s — it’s not the same as saying, you know what, I have got COVID, and here, socially, we’re all talking about quarantining, and here are the steps that you should take. But it’s a different conversation to say, I can’t figure out how to feed my family.

HARRIS: That’s right. That’s right. And one of the one of the underlying requirements for our soldiers and airmen doing this mission is that they treat everyone with dignity and respect. When someone leaves one of our distribution centers, when they come into contact with a Guardsman, we want them to leave feeling better than they did when they got there. They shouldn’t feel shame. This is no different than any other impact of this coronavirus. And we want them to leave there with their dignity and with their respect. And our soldiers and airmen has done a fantastic job with that. I’m reminded of a story that one of our soldiers down in Southeastern Ohio told us, a small community. And so the people who are coming through that food bank are people he know. There are people from his community. Keep in mind, our soldiers and airmen live in the communities with the people they’re supporting. And he just talked about the intrinsic strength and value that he got from serving those neighbors and those relatives that were coming through that food bank, and doing it in a way that let them leave there with their dignity and with their respect, and knowing that this is going to be better when this is all over.

SREENIVASAN: Tell me just a little bit about the scale of the food bank operation here. How many people are you deploying to this? How many people are coming through here?

HARRIS: The scale is just incredible. It’s almost comprehensible. These soldiers and airmen, between the 14 food banks around the state of Ohio, they have packaged over 65 million pounds of food. I can’t even comprehend 65 million pounds of food. But that’s what’s been moving through the hands of our soldiers and airmen.

SREENIVASAN: Are you surprised that the need is as acute?

HARRIS: I knew that there would be an increase in the need. I had no idea how much it would be. I had no idea how much it would be. Our soldiers and airmen tell us about people who’ve worked as volunteers at the food bank who are now coming through the food banks to get food for their families. So that’s 180-degree social change, so to speak. And it’s profound. And it is — it’s prevalent in our rural areas. It’s prevalent in our urban areas. This is not just an Ohio issue. This is a U.S. issue. This is a global issue.

SREENIVASAN: You’re going to be here in this active mission of supporting the food banks until the end of the year. Do you think the problem is going to stop then?

HARRIS: I don’t. I don’t. I think we’re going to be in this for a while. I think, even when we have a vaccine, it’s going to take a while for that vaccine to be developed and distributed and put into enough arms that it makes a difference for this disease. In the meantime, we have to keep doing what we’re doing. We have to keep the measures in place to protect ourselves, the social distancing, the masks. I will tell you, I fear that we may see worse before we see better. Here in Ohio, we know that we’re starting to see some fatigue with coronavirus. That’s causing a bit of a letdown in the discipline. We’re coming indoors because it’s getting cold. And we’re approaching the holidays. That’s kind of a perfect storm for seeing an increase in the numbers for coronavirus. So, I think that we may see some greater challenges before we see our way out of this. So, do I think there will be a demand here at the food banks for additional help? I don’t see the volunteers coming back anytime, anytime soon, because the conditions haven’t changed. And I don’t see the food insecurity going away anytime soon. So, when you have that increase on the demand side and the challenges on the supply chain side, yes, I think it creates a need for the National Guard long after December.

SREENIVASAN: I want to ask also just a little bit about the Facebook video.


HARRIS: Racism divides us, and it destroys the trust between leader and led, between soldiers, between airmen and with the American people. It’s reprehensible, and it will not be tolerated in our ranks.


SREENIVASAN: Why did you feel the need to speak out in this way against racism?

HARRIS: I feel the need to reinforce to our soldiers and airmen, at times like this, particularly in the wake of the George Floyd death, where emotions, emotions become so strong, to refocus our folks and make sure that they understand that it’s OK if their opinions are divided over the issues, but we have to be united for the mission. This is essential. The readiness of the armed forces does not go away, despite whatever’s happening in this country. And our job, my job is to make sure that we’re not only prepared for the national defense and the goal — the away game, but for domestic response right here. And that means that, if I call you today, you have to be ready to go today. And I don’t have time, I don’t have time to get you ready or to have philosophical discussions. When we call you for a civil disturbance in a city, I need you on the street that night. And I need you to come with your A-game, disciplined and fair and impartial. And if you can’t park that, you can’t participate in this organization.

SREENIVASAN: So, the civil unrest that you have had to respond to this year, what do you tell your soldiers and your airmen when they get an assignment like this, when the governor calls them up, and they’re required to show up at a moment’s notice in a city that they might not be familiar with, they might have their own opinions about what’s going on, on the street around them, but they’re called in to do a job?

HARRIS: Well, we tell them to do what they know to do, what they have been trained to do. And that’s to be fair and impartial and unbiased. Our soldiers and airmen and every officer and noncommissioned officer leader along the way knows that we are an apolitical organization. So, when you put on this uniform, you’re not a Republican or a Democrat. You’re not a liberal or conservative. You are an American soldier, an American airman. And our job is — our oath is to the Constitution, and our job is to enforce everyone’s right. We support local law enforcement as they support everyone’s right, in that case, to express their First Amendment rights. It doesn’t matter if you like what they’re saying or dislike what they’re saying. Your opinion in this case is irrelevant. Your mission is what’s important. And it’s because of doing that such a disciplined way that we’re able to maintain the trust with the public that we have. Also, when the public sees us doing missions like these, when they see us in the food banks, when they see us out there doing testing for coronavirus all over the state, they get to know the Guard, they learn to trust the Guard, and, again, they know that it’s their friends and their neighbors. So, when we have to show up for those tough missions, like civil disturbance, that trust comes with us. And they know that our people are going to conduct their mission as fairly and as impartially as they can. And to the person, whether that was the Tamir Rice verdict, whether that was the Republican National Committee — convention that we had here a few years ago, whether it was the most recent debate, or whether it’s civil disturbance, when we put our people out there with the public, invariably, they do that job just in a fantastic manner, because that’s what they have learned to do.

SREENIVASAN: This is a time of increased polarity and political tension in the country. And it’s hard for people to remember that there’s human beings inside the uniform, that they are our neighbors and our relatives and our family, right? So, how do you get through that message to your soldiers and your airmen that you are a part of this community that you’re helping serve; even if someone is irate and in your face, and you might agree with them, but you got this uniform on, this is your duty right now?

HARRIS: Well as in anything that we try to inculcate into our service members, you can’t just say it once, and it really has to become a part of the DNA of the organization. So, it starts long before we put those soldiers and airmen on the street for missions like these. It goes down to everything from their social media posts. You can’t be a soldier on your social media and have these strong political opinions. It’s counter to what we’re trying to accomplish. So, we’re constantly watching, not only individual sites, but — not monitoring for their opinion, but just ensuring that they’re not mixing their military duty with their political or social agenda. Can’t do that. So, it’s perfectly fine to have a site where you’re expressing your opinion. We want you to have your opinion. Perfectly fine to be a soldier. But if you’re mixing being a soldier with some kind of political activism, you can’t do that. So, we ingrain that in our folks from the very beginning. You are apolitical when you put this on. Now, when you’re having dinner with your family, we want you to have those debates. We want you to be who you are. We want you to express yourself. But understand, when you convert from citizen to soldier, you’re expected to be 100 percent soldier.

SREENIVASAN: You had an unfortunate incident recently that the governor was talking about, when one of the members that you deployed to Washington, D.C., had made a sign toward white supremacy. When you saw that — the evidence from that, when you heard that this happened, what went through your mind?

HARRIS: Well, it’s very disturbing. It’s very disturbing, because we know that there are organizations that are infiltrating the military ranks to get the military training, and in some cases to try to influence other military members. And that erodes the very trust that’s the foundation of everything we do. So, when I say it’s disturbing, it’s disturbing because we certainly don’t want that image, we don’t want that brand for our military. It certainly disrupts what we’re trying to accomplish as an impartial, apolitical organization. So, we have to eliminate it very quickly. And that soldier, once the FBI brought that to our attention, because they were — he was operating — he was operating undercover. He certainly wasn’t being overt, using his real identity, of course. He was operating as part of these organizations out there in social media space as someone else. But when the FBI brought this to our attention, we dealt with it very quickly and very abruptly. And it just shows the value of the partnerships that we have as the Guard also, those longstanding relationships with other agencies. They brought it to our attention. We dealt with it very swiftly and very quickly, because it is the foundation of what we do that that soldier was eroding.

SREENIVASAN: So, how do you root that out? How do you make sure you’re finding where these conversations are existing, either silently in a person, or under pseudonyms online?

HARRIS: We, as the military, are prohibited and we should never collect information, store information or distribute information about U.S. persons. That’s not what we do. So, other agencies help us with that quite a bit, as they watch these organizations. But it gets tougher every day. These organizations are very good about how they use social media now. Used to be easy. They were very open in social media. They have gotten smarter about the techniques that our partners use. So, they have become very covert in how they operate out there in social media space, how they organize, how they distribute their propaganda. So it becomes harder for those organizations. But we count on those organizations. In addition to the background checks that we do when we assess a person, we count on those organizations to help us monitor the folks in our ranks who may be outside of what’s appropriate for us.

SREENIVASAN: We have got three weeks or less — less than three weeks until the election. How is the National Guard going to support the days leading up to the election, the day of the election, and possibly the days after?

HARRIS: Well, we have several initiatives under way right now. Most are simply augmenting things that we already do. For example, we have — cybersecurity is something that’s very important to us. And we have had ongoing relationships with our secretary of state’s office for quite some time, working with them to assure that we can — we assess the vulnerability of their systems and do the best we can to make sure that they have the best assessment of their systems that we can possibly provide to them. Moreover, we look at — we look at the seven metropolitan areas in Ohio. We have seven major metropolitan areas. And if we were to respond to civil disturbance in multiple metropolitan areas at once, what would that look like? We conduct tabletop exercises with local leaders, local law enforcement, with our own state Highway Patrol, to ensure that, if we did have to respond to something, that we would.

SREENIVASAN: You feel prepared?

HARRIS: I do feel prepared. But I think it’s important to note that, on Election Day, don’t expect to see uniformed service folks around the polling places. That’s something that we’re very sensitive to. We don’t want the perception that we’re in any way influencing voting, either for or against. And we certainly don’t want our soldiers or airmen actually working the polling places. We know that, here in Ohio — I shouldn’t say that, not in uniform, not in a duty status. If they’re in their citizen status, want to go — they feel a civic responsibility to volunteer to work the polls, we want them to do that. But you won’t see any military — uniformed military Ohio National Guard soldiers working the polls, because that’s counter to the message that we want to send to the voters of Ohio.

SREENIVASAN: Major General Harris, thanks so much.

HARRIS: Thank you so much, sir.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with Andy Slavitt about health reform. She also speaks with Gary Knight and Robin Wright about “Imagine: Reflections on Peace.” Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Major General John C. Harris, Commander of the Ohio National Guard, about food in security on location at Mid-Ohio Food Collective, the state’s largest food bank.