With COVID-19 causing Hoosiers financial difficulties, this year has not been easy for families with unsafe food or the organizations that serve them.
Demand for food aid grows as winter approaches, and organizations in the Indianapolis area say they may lack the volunteer strength and resources to keep up.
Meal distribution for Gleaners Food Bank increased 107% for the fiscal year ended September 30, said John Elliott, president and CEO of Gleaners.
St. Vincent de Paul provides for about 3,700 families a week, about 20-30% more than usual for the pantry, said managing director Peter Zubler.
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The numbers have risen in recent weeks, and Zubler predicts that more than 4,000 families will come each week before the New Year. Even before COVID-19, the pantry was the largest in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation.
Zubler said more people turned to St. Vincent de Paul about the pandemic and higher unemployment. He said the instability is fueling food insecurity fears.
“We just have a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear,” said Zubler.
Gleaners and the Midwest Food Bank said they operate from multiple sources to meet increased demand.
They don’t receive traditional food donations or volunteering, so food and labor had to come from other sources.
Government programs have helped fill the gaps in the summer months, but much of it doesn’t seem to be permanent. The CARES Act, Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and other funding sources expire at the end of the year.
Some of it has already shrunk. In its heyday, the Gleaners nutrition program was providing 40,000 boxes of groceries a week. The food bank is now down to around 4,000, a number that continues to decline as the program’s end date approaches.
“These federal programs, the scope of which is really important,” Elliott said.
Local charities have stepped in to fill budget gaps. Lilly Endowment donations have provided Gleaners and Midwest funds to hire contract workers to make up for loss of volunteer work. Gleaners could also use donations to buy more refrigerator, Elliott said.
Community support is still needed to keep up with demand.
Food aid organizations buy items at a lower cost than the public, which means donating money goes beyond donating canned food, Elliott said.
Volunteering is another way to help, especially when the need for redistribution increases.
Many regular volunteers are older, so they didn’t come because they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Elliott said. Other people just focus on staying home.
Keep the mind
Even in non-pandemic years, there is a greater need for food aid in the winter months.
The decision between paying bills and buying groceries is always an issue for some hoosiers, Elliott said. Some families may seek food aid because vacation expenses, such as gifts, can affect their budget elsewhere.
“The families we serve always make compromise decisions,” Elliott said.
During the winter, food banks and pantries make a point of providing families with basic groceries rather than focusing on holiday-specific products that are usually not that inexpensive.
According to Elliott, Gleaners is focused on how the pandemic will affect families with unsafe food in the years to come. So buying expensive products like turkeys could deter them from effectively meeting demand over the long term.
Depending on their structure, some organizations have some options for serving holiday-oriented foods.
Nora Spitznogle, senior director of programs at Second Helpings, said the kitchen isn’t looking for holiday foods for the 10,000 hot meals it offers the community each day.
However, their model of “saving” food that may have damaged the packaging or is close to its expiration date means that some specialty items will show up at unexpected times.
“It’s like this vacation where your family can’t come in until later,” said Spitznogle.
The spread of second helpings has doubled since the pandemic began, and the organization needs help in addition to its typical sources.
According to Spitznogle, volunteers may enjoy working at Second Helpings because they do practical work like chopping peppers or packing meals.
“You can really see the fruits of your labor,” said Spitznogle.
For many of these organizations, providing food to Indianapolis and the surrounding communities is a group effort.
“We don’t do it alone,” said Zubler. “We do this with all of our food partners.”
Zubler said he doesn’t think concerns about finding food will go away during the pandemic, but he believes the food aid community is doing its best to work with the resources available.
“I think we are adaptable enough and work together so well that we will do everything we can to meet the demand,” said Zubler.
How to help
Gleaners Food Bank: Visit Gleaners.org to volunteer or make a donation.
Midwest Food Bank: Visit midwestfoodbank.org to volunteer or make a donation.
St. Vincent de Paul: Visit svdpindy.org to volunteer or make a donation.
Second servings: Visit secondhelpings.org to volunteer or make a donation.
Indy Hunger Network: Visit indyhunger.org to donate or find ways to volunteer with other organizations not listed here.
Those looking for food aid can use the Indy Hunger Network’s Community Compass app. It can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play for smartphones. People without a smartphone can send the word “Hello” to 317-434-3758.
Contact Pulliam Fellow Lydia Gerike at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @LydiaGerike.