The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 21, 2019 1:00 am

Food banks fill county need

Despite strong economy, some get left behind

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The unemployment rate in Indiana was 3.6% in May. The poverty rate in the state has fallen steadily since the peak of the recession in 2011. The economy is good, on the whole.

Despite those mostly rosy figures, there remains a chunk of people left behind.

In Indiana, 13.5% of people live below the federal poverty line and a further 25% live below what the United Way, which published the data, calls the “ALICE” line, those with jobs who struggle to pay for basic needs such as food, housing and health care. That means more than 38% of people from Indiana may need some extra help on essential items.

Garry Pook, director of finance at Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, knows these figures nearly by heart. Pook's mission, and that of the organization for which he has worked for the last six years, is to help those in need in Allen County. One of the major ways in which Associated Churches fulfills that role is through its network of 25 local food pantries, which help provide an emergency food supply to those who must choose between necessities.

“We've found from talking to some of the clients that if it weren't for those food pantries, they may not be able to buy medication that they need,” said Pook, 75, a kindly, white-haired retired VA finance officer. “They may not be able to pay the utility bills. So although we are subsidizing what they do or how they live, it's still a need.”

Community Harvest Food Bank is the most well-known food bank in the area, but it is far from the only one. Associated Churches and its satellite food pantries gave out 1.25 million meals in 2018.

The process is straightforward. Those in need can receive up to a five-day supply of food every month for each member of the family. To get the food, potential recipients must provide a photo ID and an address, which determines the particular food pantry where they will be sent. 

When Associated Churches clients arrive at their designated food pantry, they receive bags of food that include pasta, soup, diced potatoes, crackers and eggs, in addition to other food provided by the particular food pantry itself, rather than directly from Associated Churches.

This network of food pantries receives regular deliveries in boxes from a 22,000-foot warehouse in the back of the Associated Churches headquarters on East Wayne Street. That warehouse was unusually full recently thanks to a massive donation from the National Association of Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger food drive in May. 

The products in the warehouse are split into “in-kind” (donations of food) and food bought from monetary donations. Warehouse manager Chris Alvarez and warehouse assistant Kyle Pelz sort the food, boxing it up and loading boxes into the delivery van.

Boxes of food in the warehouse were piled 15 feet high after the letter carriers' donation, but Alvarez, a smiling, earnest believer in the transformative power of providing food, said he has seen the shelves much emptier. He admits it can be difficult to keep even charitably inclined people interested in giving to food pantries.

“They've heard food bank for so long they don't realize how important it is,” said Alvarez, who has been the warehouse manager for 10 years. “They're thinking, 'What else can our money do?' But hunger is an issue. It's kind of hard to keep people excited about food.

“We don't just feed people. Volunteers pray with people, laugh with people, maybe even cry with people. We help them get through their hardship.”

Once the food is delivered to the satellite food pantries, it's available for those in need. At one food pantry, located at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on South Harrison Street, about 15 people receive food per day, according to Anne Marie Saul, a mother of nine. Saul works at the pantry's front desk, keeping track of everyone who comes and goes, ensuring they are eligible to receive food that day and offering some kind words.

In a back room, a team of volunteers takes the food from the deliveries and stacks it on shelves. Then, they sort it into bags to be handed out. These volunteers are mostly older, retired community members who began volunteering out of a desire to give back. It's a group Saul affectionately calls “the Old Boys Club.”

“There's a lot of people that are down and out that need food and there's gotta be some volunteers to do it,” said Tom Humbrecht, 74, a volunteer who retired after a long stint in the mortgage business. “Otherwise, it's not going to get done. ... It's a good feeling when you leave here that you've helped some people.”

One of those helped at St. Patrick's in May was David Todd, who lives just blocks from the church. Todd, a veteran who lives on a military pension after being injured in Iraq, is appreciative of those who volunteer at the food pantry, who are always upbeat when he comes in.

“It was bad right after Christmas; I wanted all my nieces and nephews to get a good present,” Todd said. “Then January and February, I didn't have a ton of money leftover, and I was able to come here and get a little food to help me through the month.

“It's not sad eyes (from the volunteers) or 'Oh, I wonder what you've been through recently.' It's all just smiles and good mornings.”

There are, of course, other food pantries in the area outside of the Associated Churches' orbit. Most are located at churches or at places like Miss Virginia's Mission House on South Hanna Street.

There are also several soup kitchens in the area, including at St. Mary's on Lafayette Street, where two huge vats of soup get doled out from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday and for several hours on weekends, as well. There, no photo ID is required. 

The kitchen, staffed by a rotating group of 70 to 80 volunteers also gives out quarts of milk on Mondays and Wednesdays and select other items throughout the week.

All of these places have received generous donations, but there is always a need for more food and volunteers.

Roger Reece, the executive pastor at Associated Churches, had a simple message for those thinking of giving: Just because the economy is good, doesn't mean everything is blue sky.

The goal of these food banks is to push the clouds away, as much as they can.

“We're not always as well off a community as maybe we think we are,” Pook said. “We only see the glitter and the good that is happening and there is a lot of glitter and a lot of good that is happening ... but we still need to do more.”

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