With COVID-19 adding to financial hardship for Hoosiers, this year has not been easy for food insecure families or the organizations that serve them.
Demands for food aid increase as winter approaches, and organizations in the Indianapolis area say they may lack the volunteer manpower and funds needed to compensate.
Food distribution increased 107% for Gleaners Food Bank in the fiscal year ending September 30, said Gleaners president and CEO John Elliott.
St. Vincent de Paul serves about 3,700 families per week, about 20-30% more than usual for a food kitchen, said executive director Peter Zubler.
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The number has increased in recent weeks, and Zubler predicts more than 4,000 families will come each week before the new year. The food pantry is already the largest in the Midwest and one of the largest in the country before COVID-19.
Zubler said more people have turned to St. Vincent de Paul because of the pandemic and higher unemployment. He said the instability was pushing back concerns about food insecurity.
“We just have a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear,” said Zubler.
Gleaners and the Midwest Food Bank said they had been operating from multiple sources to meet growing demand.
They do not receive traditional food donations or volunteer work, so food and labor must come from other sources.
Government programs help fill the void during the summer months, but most are unlikely to last. The CARES Act, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and other sources of funding will expire at the end of the year.
Some of them have shrunk. At its peak, the food aid program provided collectors with 40,000 boxes of food a week. Food banks are now down to around 4,000, a figure that has continued to decline as the program’s end date approaches.
“That federal program, the scale of that program is very important,” said Elliott.
Local charities have stepped in to fill the budget gap. A donation from the Lilly Endowment has provided money to the Gleaners and the Midwest to hire temporary workers as a way to replace lost volunteer labor. Collectors can also use donations to buy cooler storage, Elliott said.
Community support is still needed to meet the demand.
Food aid organizations buy goods at a lower cost than the public, meaning cash donations are more than donating canned goods, Elliott said.
Volunteering is another way to help, especially as distribution needs increase.
Many of the regular volunteers are older, so they don’t come because they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Elliott said. Other people only focus on staying at home.
Even in non-pandemic years, there is a greater need for winter food aid.
Deciding between paying bills and buying food has always been a concern of some Hoosiers, says Elliott. Some families may seek food assistance because holiday expenses, such as gifts, can affect their budget elsewhere.
“The families we serve always make sacrificial decisions,” said Elliott.
During winter, food banks and kitchens prioritize providing the family with staple foods rather than focusing on holiday-specific items, which are usually not cost-effective.
Elliott said Gleaners is focused on how the pandemic will affect food-insecure families for years to come, so buying expensive items like turkey can prevent them from meeting demand effectively in the long term.
Depending on the structure, some organizations do have few opportunities to serve holiday-focused meals.
Nora Spitznogle, senior program director at Second Helpings, said the kitchen does not seek holiday food for the 10,000 warm meals it gives the community every day.
However, their “save” food model that may have damaged the packaging or is nearing its expiration date means some special items show up at unexpected times.
“It’s like a vacation where your family can’t come until later,” said Spitznogle.
The distribution of Second Helpings has doubled since the pandemic began, and organizations also need help in addition to typical sources.
Spitznogle says volunteers might enjoy working in Second Helpings because they’ll be doing hands-on work like chopping peppers or packing food.
“You can literally see the results of your work,” says Spitznogle.
For many of these organizations, providing food to Indianapolis and its surrounding communities is a group effort.
“We didn’t do it alone,” said Zubler. “We do it with all of our food partners.”
Zubler said he is not sure concerns about finding food during the pandemic will go away, but he believes the food aid community is doing its best to work with available resources.
“I think we are adaptable enough, and we work together really well so we will do whatever it takes to make ends meet,” said Zubler.
How to help
St. Vincent de Paul: Visit svdpindy.org to volunteer or donate.
Indy Hunger Network: Visit indyhunger.org to donate or seek opportunities to volunteer with other organizations not listed here.
Those seeking food aid can use the Indy Hunger Network’s Community Compass app. It can be downloaded via the App Store or Google Play for smartphones. A person without a smartphone can text the word “hi” to 317-434-3758.
Contact Pulliam Partner Lydia Gerike at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @LydiaGerike.
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