LOTTRIDGE, Ohio — With a carrot in one hand and slices of cake in the other, Lisa Roberts made her way through the crowded food pantry on an otherwise desolate road in the tiny southeast Ohio town in the hills a few miles from the Ohio River.
That carrot — misshapen and unpeeled — was later chopped up for some of the hundreds of people waiting to eat a hot meal or take food home from the Friends and Neighbors Community Choice Food Center. The cake was a surprise for a little girl whose birthday had come that day with no candles to blow out or presents to open.
By Ms. Roberts’ estimates, 400 families depend on her for food every month. Others depend on her for simple things such as a birthday cake for a child, and sometimes they call on her for more grim necessities, such as for help digging a grave and then moving a dead body for a family too poor to afford funeral services.
“I put her body in the back of her van from the morgue and took it to my mom’s house, and we had a girl who was a nurse and used to dealing with bodies do the makeup,” Ms. Roberts said. “We took it ourselves to the church; my husband had made a coffin, and then we buried her.”
In 2010, NBC TV viewers from across the country got a glimpse into the despair and extreme poverty in Ohio’s Appalachia, which has been exacerbated by the Great Recession and the cuts to social services that followed. After nine months on location in Lottridge, a Dateline special report by Ann Curry titled “America Now: Friends and Neighbors,” translated into a heartbreaking hour of television and an Emmy for the network.
The TV crews left, and Ms. Roberts, 48, is still in Lottridge serving thousands who are hungry.
“I would like to say there is this great happy ending, but there is not,” she said. “There are no more jobs here than when they came, and there are the same number of people, or more, trying to get the services that are available that have been cut. Food stamps still get cut, for heaven’s sake.”
In Athens County, population 64,757, Medicaid recipients number 12,162, or 19 percent, and food-stamp recipients total 11,515, or 18 percent. It is one of the poorest counties in Ohio despite being home to Ohio University, a major public institution, in the city of Athens — a trendy urban area surrounded by a hilly, poor, rural landscape.
Places such as Trimble, Glouster, Nelsonville, and Chauncey are gritty towns that prosperity has passed by. Their poverty rates hover above 50 percent. They are filled with run-down single-wide trailers that pass for homes and former coal company shotgun houses, most that haven’t seen better days for decades.
Jack Frech, director of Job and Family Services for Athens County, said many families in the county would go hungry without food pantries or other places to get emergency food.
“What is really pathetic is that we have to rely on [Lisa Roberts] to feed people,” he said on a recent trip to the Lottridge food pantry. “It breaks my heart even more when I come out here.”
Mr. Frech thinks welfare benefits are not sufficient and said poor people are more likely to be unemployable because of histories that have to be disclosed on job applications, including drug abuse, being a high school drop-out, or having spent time in prison.
Ohio has thrown 68,000 people off the welfare rolls since January, 2011, because of sanctions, three-year maximum time limits, or other reasons. Of those, more than 37,000 are children.
Alisha Chesser, a 23-year-old single mother of two girls ages 1 and 4, lives in Nelsonville and makes a point of keeping to herself because of the drug problems in that town.
Like many in the area, she is on welfare and food stamps and satisfies her welfare work requirement by painting figurines at Jacksonville Ceramics.
“I have been on [Job and Family Services] for the past four months; before that I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I am trying to get a job. Anything would be better than nothing; I don’t care if it is fast food.”
She receives $100 a month in cash assistance and $550 a month in food stamps.
Unlike in Toledo, there is no public transportation she can take to get to her welfare-work duty.
“By the time I pay my bills and buy diapers and wipes, there is nothing left, she said. “I am spending $15 a day in gas just getting here and back. So I try to stay to myself around [Nelsonville] because drugs is the big problem, and I don’t even take my kids out in public that much.”
“Right here is where Meigs County, Washington County, and Athens County all come together, and it is pretty much the forgotten end of all those counties, and furthest from any services,” Ms. Roberts said. “I am targeting the places that are rural Appalachia.”
Shirley Forrider, a mother of two who works at the food pantry as a way to satisfy her welfare-work requirements and to get food, said federal and state programs are not providing enough assistance to people in her situation and others under the poverty line.
“It really does not make sense,” Ms. Forrider said. “I want to get back to school, but I don’t have a vehicle or anything, so you get really stuck, and there is no way out.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6171.