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.