Fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and milk gave Hoosier families extra food during lean times due to economic slowdowns from the novel coronavirus.
Indiana food bank operators struggling with a surge in demand are calling for increased federal funding for assistance programs that help people pay for items at grocery stores.
As the coronavirus pandemic put hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers out of jobs, many of them turned to food banks to feed their families. But food banks and pantries were not set up to store and distribute the massive amounts of fresh food they are now receiving. Some scrambled to adapt to the volume by buying more storage and setting up more sites to distribute food, food bank operators say. A few had to even throw away food gone bad.
Dawn Barnes, the Indiana regional director of Society of St. Andrew, said that three of about two dozen pantries the organization recently distributed food to said they have had to throw away fresh food gone bad. Storage and refrigeration is the number one problem for most food charities, especially as these organizations shift to distributing more fresh food.
A cart of food going out to a client at Old Bethel & Partners Food Pantry, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. The pantry, associated with Old Bethel United Methodist Church, is looking for volunteers, as previous helpers, soldiers from Indiana National Guard, are being tasked with another mission. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
“We cannot feed America on just charitable organizations,” she said, adding that programs that give people money to buy food are necessary.
A recent push by food charities to increase federal food assistance programs for low-income families has had mixed results. Federal lawmakers increased food assistance to families with children who receive free and reduced lunches at school, something food banks wanted.
However, food bank operators did not get the 15% increase to the maximum benefit they wanted for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), which is for people with very low incomes. For a single person, the program is capped at $204 a month, which is not enough and drives people to pantries, said Emily Bryant, the executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, a network of food banks in the state.
Indiana food banks and pantries are feeling additional pressure as the majority of National Guard soldiers who have been helping out at these organizations are leaving to return to other duties. Many food banks are trying to recruit volunteers so they won’t have to cut back hours.
Demand for food has soared across Indiana and the country. Feed America, the national network of food banks, estimates that the rate of people in Marion County who don’t have regular access to food increased from 15.3% in 2018 to 20.6% this year, with other counties seeing similar increases. The organization estimates a statewide increase of 39% from 2018 to 1.2 million people.
To help meet demand, federal officials are paying farms to provide excess food to food banks and pantries, Bryant said.
Although the need is great, the amount of incoming fresh food has presented problems.
“It’s been a serious pressure on the entire system,” Bryant said. “Food banks are renting refrigeration trucks and storage space.”
Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, one of the largest food bank in the state, had been fundraising to add freezer and cooler space to distribute more fresh food even before the pandemic, said John Elliott, the president and CEO of Gleaners. To keep up with demand, the organization has borrowed space from a food company and rented trailers to distribute food.
That is why food assistance programs are critical.
With EBT cards, electronic benefit transfer cards that act like a debit card,people can shop more on their own time and pick out what they need, Bryant said.
Barnes said she would like to see more food assistance funding go toward EBT cards for families who need the help.
“They have a choice of what they want. They have the dignity to go to the store,” Barnes said.
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