Men who can cook

Erica Weisburn

Food fundraiser helps local families affected by poverty

Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper puts the finishing touches on the food he has prepared for the Men Who Cook fundraiser. The event was put on by the Catholic Charities of Portage County to help raise money for needy families. Photo by HEATHER STAW

Credit: Ron Soltys

Local men fed nearly 300 people and raised an estimated $8,000 Saturday for a growing number of Portage County families living in poverty.

Catholic Charities of Portage County hosted the fundraiser, held at the Immaculate Conception Parish Hall in Ravenna. Last year, the organization assisted 1,800 local families, executive director Deborah Feke said. She expects that number to be substantially higher in 2008.

“The economy has hit this area hard,” Feke said. “The nation’s rate of poverty has decreased, but within the diocese of Youngstown, it has increased.”

From 1995 to 2005, both Ohio and Portage County’s poverty rates have increased. Ohio went from 11.3 percent to 13 percent, and Portage County increased from 8.9 to 10.9 percent. Currently, the number of Portage County residents living in poverty is around 11.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau poverty estimates.

Nationally, the 1995 U.S. Census estimated that 13.8 percent of the U.S. population was living in poverty. It decreased slightly to 13.3 percent in 2005.

Catholic Charities of Portage County hosted the event called Men Who Cook, and Feke plans to make the inaugural event an annual fundraiser. When all donations are calculated, she expects the total to be much higher than $8,000.

All proceeds from Men Who Cook will immediately help families who need assistance paying rent, utilities or prescription drug costs, Feke said.

Ohio economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics, said Ohio “is coming up short” for several reasons.

“Last year, U.S. job growth was around 1.25 percent, and Ohio’s is sitting steady at zero,” Mayland said.

The main problem in Northeast Ohio isn’t producing jobs, so people have little hope of moving out of poverty. Considering this, it is no surprise Ohio is seeing more foreclosure than other states, he said.

“Ohio’s economy is underperforming, and the employment rate isn’t anywhere near the national tendencies,” Mayland said. “Don’t expect Ohio to fix itself anytime soon.”

Mayland expects Ohio’s economic problems to continue, and even worsen, over the next five years.

Maureen Frederick, Portage County commissioner and a judge for Men Who Cook, finds Northeast Ohio’s economy to be “very concerning.”

“Portage County is a very giving community,” she said. “We have a lot of social service agencies to help out, but people often don’t know these programs are available.”

She said this is why she encourages those living in poverty to step forward and ask.

Feke said she hopes Men Who Cook and other charity events will persuade people to seek assistance. Since the poverty rate is high, Catholic Charities of Portage County plans to host more community fundraisers this year to raise money for its other assistance programs, she said.

“If you’re hungry, come to a soup kitchen, sit down and eat,” Frederick said.

Most local charities, like Catholic Charities of Portage County, are open to anyone who qualifies.

Contact public affairs reporter Erica Weisburn at [email protected].