For forty years, Tina Osso has worked on food and poverty issues serving nearly all of speaker John Boehner’s 8th Congressional District of Ohio. She came to that work in 1973, when the oil embargo resulted in her losing her job, and she unexpectedly found herself in line at a food pantry, where she began volunteering.
“It changed the course of my life,” says Osso.
Ten years later, she founded the Shared Harvest Foodbank where she still serves as executive director today. The food bank distributes food to pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, nutrition programs for seniors and children, and operates antipoverty programs as well.
Osso describes herself as “an aging hippie, a political activist and a stand-up comedian wannabe, trying her best to do the right thing at the right time.” But among her colleagues she’s earned a reputation as “a longtime people’s advocate,” according to Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks in Columbus.
“She has her finger to the pulse of those in need in the 8th District as much as anyone, and that need is greater now than it has been in decades,” says Hamler-Fugitt.
Indeed in 2009, childhood poverty rose over six points in the Boehner district to reach 19.1 percent , or 29,173 kids. Overall, 14 percent of Boehner’s constituents live below the federal poverty line of $22,400 per year for a family of four. Shared Harvest’s work has more than doubled—it distributed approximately 7 million pounds of food in 2007, and 16 million pounds in 2010.
To respond to increased child hunger, the food bank started a backpack program that provides weekend meals to kids identified by schools as chronically hungry. The warning signs include physical manifestations such as sunken eyes or crusting around the mouth, or behaviors like rushing food lines or hoarding food.
“These are kids ages three to twelve who are at a critical point in their brain development and need adequate nutrition,” says Osso. “We’re only in eleven of the forty-eight school districts in our territory and we now serve about 2,100 children a week. It’s stunning.”
Boehner has many constituents living above the official poverty line who are struggling with hunger as well. In 2010, the number of residents enrolled in the food stamp program (SNAP ) in the six counties represented by the Speaker climbed to over 152,000, an increase of over 47,000 people since 2008. Nevertheless, food stamps would be slashed under the House GOP 2012 budget.
“It’s no crime to have childhood poverty and hunger in a district,” says Melissa Boteach, manager of Half in Ten, a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years. “But it is a crime not to do anything about it.”
Osso has a history of reaching out to Boehner to try to get him to understand his constituents’ needs, beginning in the mid-1990s, when he was Chairman of the House Republican Conference. She attempted unsuccessfully to involve him in work on a “trigger mechanism” policy to potentially raise funding for an Emergency Food Assistance Program that hadn’t seen an increase in thirteen years.
More recently, she wrote Boehner a letter describing the impact Republican cut proposals would have on seniors in his district. Shared Harvest provides 1,750 senior citizens a monthly box of food, at $20 per box, through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. The need is far greater, however, and Osso writes of seniors routinely reading the obituaries to see if a participant has passed away, thereby opening a slot. The House Republican cuts would result in 500 current participants being removed from the program.
“How do I go about doing that?” she asks the Speaker. “Explaining that they will have to go hungry because of a budget deficit?”
She invited Boehner to a CSFP distribution site in Hamilton, Ohio, to meet people like “Mr. Murray, who is 94 and outlived his children, or 97-year-old Mrs. Garret, who lost her husband in World War II.”
Boehner has neither visited nor responded to the letter.
“It’s just been a battle to have him even understand what his constituency is going through,” says Osso, “and I don’t think he even understands to this day.”
Osso attributes Boehner’s lack of empathy to “his perception of his own life and how he was able to quote-unquote pull himself up by his bootstraps. It’s just his inability to understand anyone else’s life experience and circumstances other than his own, so he uses that as the stick by which he measures people.”
Within the district, however, she sees many of Boehner’s constituents learning the hard way that struggles with poverty and hunger are far more pervasive than they ever imagined.
“So many people find themselves in line at food pantries who never thought they’d be there,” says Osso. “I think the best thing that could come out of this Great Recession is for people to understand that it only takes one or two paychecks for most people before they’re standing in line. Maybe that will change the conversation in this nation and we stop blaming poor people for being poor, and start working on solutions to poverty.”
Like other advocates, her frustration with the budget debate is palpable.
“It’s not just the cuts to the programs that we manage. It’s the overall meanness of this budget that targets the most vulnerable populations in our country—the weakest and the ones with the smallest voice,” she says.
Despite years of frustration in trying to get Boehner to respond to his constituents who are struggling, Osso hasn’t entirely given up, and she still has a message for him.
“We just want you to meet your constituents who are involved in making sure their neighbors have enough to eat, and we want you to meet those neighbors who are suffering silently behind closed doors. They are so embarrassed to be hungry,” she says. “We’re fighting each other over crumbs when we should be seeing each other for who we are and working together.”