Crime halts meal service for low-income seniors

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CANTON, Ohio – As the CEO of StarkFresh, Tom Phillips is used to helping people.

“Our mission is to tackle the root causes of hunger by creating realistic routes out of poverty. We’re doing all this with a food spin and it’s usually all about access to food,” he said.

The Canton-based nonprofit accomplishes this through its mobile food market, affordable grocery store, seed library, and other services.

Grocery store manager Bridget Johnson herself benefits from StarkFresh’s service.

“I also live in low-income apartments. It means a lot to me. I can come here and buy $20 worth of groceries and go home with 2 bags. I have triplets, they’re eating me out of the house,” she said. “I was amazed at the prices and the quality of the food I can get really cheap and they matched my EBT which was out of this world.”

But when Phillips arrived at StarkFresh’s headquarters on Monday morning, he was the one who called the police for help.

“We got to work on Monday morning and found that our fleet of vehicles, which includes our mobile grocery store and our backup delivery and collection vehicles, were all missing their catalytic converters,” he said.

Through surveillance video, he discovered a group of thieves cut through their chain link fence and stole the converters early Sunday morning.

“Police said they were in and out very quickly. They knew exactly what they were doing,” he commented.

The Mobile Grocery Store is an integral part of the operation. It provides healthy, affordable groceries that don’t necessarily make it to a brick-and-mortar store to more than 100 customers across Stark County.

“The whole point of this is to visit places where people across the county have mobility issues and are on low income. We end up at a lot of high-rise buildings, senior housing complexes and it’s a rolling grocery store. It’s bus style, so they walk onto the bus to do their shopping and get their groceries done for the week,” Philips said.

Phillips filed a police report and gave investigators surveillance footage.

Johnson said it was discouraging to hear news of the theft.

“How can anyone do that? We’re here to help everyone, and when you come in and do that, you mess with a lot of people,” she noted.

Phillips was upset about the theft but even more upset that he couldn’t get groceries to the people who have been relying on it throughout the week.

“Because there’s been so much theft of these things and parts are hard to come by, it’s been really tedious to get any kind of urgency when there’s that kind of backlog,” he said. “You feel a little hurt, then you’re frustrated, then angry, and then you start thinking, ‘What can we do to keep functioning and get the food to the people who need it?’ It’s a rolling grocery store, it has fridges and freezers, it’s not like you can hop in a car and drive.”

The converter they need for the Mobile Grocery Market has to be ordered in Texas, and he’s hoping for business as usual next week, but wants the thieves to know they’ve stolen far more people than just StarkFresh.

“We rely on donations and volunteers. We’re not in it for the money, and when you do something like that, it affects the people we’re helping, not just us,” he said.

If you would like to donate to StarkFresh, just click here.

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