ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP — Dancing wasn't mandatory, but made the experience more fun for many as more than 600 people got into a rhythm while packing more than 200,000 meals for area residents in need on Friday morning at Ashtabula Towne Square.

The second annual Feed the Hope campaign drew businesses, political parties, social service agencies, high school students and individual volunteers together to bring the community together. State Rep. John Patterson said he was involved in two similar events as part of a leadership program and decided it would be a good program to bring to Ashtabula County.

Last year 60,000 meals were packaged at the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds and Patterson and fellow committee members decided to up the ante this year. A goal of raising enough money to make 300,000 meals was not met, but $60,000 was raised to provide supplies for the 200,000 to be distributed to 15 Ashtabula County food pantries.

Country Neighbor Executive Director Barb Klingensmith said the 60,000 meals lasted about three months last year and they hope to have meals to last longer this year. She said she was happy to see 600 people come to the event.

Diana Bradbury, director of food bank operations for Country Neighbor said the meals are provided for the food kitchens beyond their normal distribution.

"Not only are you going to be a blessing to the people who receive these meals, but you will be blessed," Patterson said while kicking off the event.

"I can't think of a better way to start my day," said Ashtabula County Commissioner Kathryn Whitttington.

Klingensmith said the meals will be especially helpful as we get closer to the holidays and the weather gets colder and need grows.

"You are saving people's lives," said Samaritan House Executive Director Steve Sargent. He thanked participants for giving of their time.

Several members of the organizing committee thanked Ashtabula Towne Square owner Ken Kister for providing the space to make the event a reality.

A large increase in volunteers came from across the board with an especially helpful influx of high school students from A-Tech, Grand Valley and Edgewood high schools, Patterson said.

He said some of the high school students packed boxes but many carried supplies and boxes of finished meals to the work stations and storage areas.

Misty Baker, of Austinburg Township, responded to a friend's request to participate. She said she came to pack meals because "it helps other people."

"I've struggled so I think it is important (to help) so other people don't have to struggle as much," she said.

Ashtabula County Jobs and Family Services Executive Director Patrick Arcaro, a committee member, said volunteers spent much of the day Thursday preparing for the event and would be cleaning up later Friday.

He said $36 million in food assistance was provided by ACJFS last year. He said there is still great need in the area but some stabilization has occurred with the slight improvement in the economy.

"The energy is just great. It brings the whole community; the whole county together," Bradbury said.

A team from UH Hospitals won the traveling trophy for most meals packed this year, Patterson said.

He also said the goal of making 200,000 meals was actually passed with the official total at 201,308.

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