More than 1,250 people drove or walked to a food giveaway Monday outside Parkview Field, more than double the number who showed up there for last week's distribution.
Some arrived four hours before the scheduled start of the Farm Wagon mobile pantry offered by Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana. So food bank workers, Indiana National Guard soldiers and Fort Wayne TinCaps employees began dispensing boxes of meat, produce and canned goods much earlier than planned.
Demand for food assistance during the coronavirus pandemic and its economic devastation “is growing exponentially every week,” said John Wolf, Community Harvest's chief executive.
Attendance at the food bank's weekly Saturday distribution at its Tillman Road headquarters has jumped from about 400, the typical attendance, to more than 1,000, Wolf said. Attendance at a weekly Tuesday mobile pantry along Coliseum Boulevard more than doubled from 218 to 564 in a month's time.
On Monday, the nonprofit Community Harvest distributed almost 39,000 pounds of food from a Parkview Field parking lot.
Many recipients expressed their gratitude.
“God bless you guys; we really appreciate you. God bless you with all our hearts and souls,” a man yelled from the back seat of a vehicle as it left the site.
A man wearing a mask, gloves and a ball cap with an American flag emblem stood at the exit, handing each departing driver a $10 bill.
“Get some gas,” he instructed them.
The man, who declined to be identified, said he was giving away the $1,200 he received from the federal coronavirus relief package. Congress has spent about $2.8 trillion to compensate individuals, businesses, health care providers, and state and local governments for the potentially deadly virus and resulting business shutdowns and unemployment spike.
“I don't know how to sew, so I can't make masks. I don't know anything medical,” the man said by way of explanation for his cash gifts.
He had seen the large crowd for the previous week's Farm Wagon at Parkview Field.
“I had no idea there was that many people that are hurting. Twelve-hundred bucks? I'm OK, I can live” without the money, he said.
Nearby, employees of WLAB-FM Star 88.3, a Christian radio station, stretched out a sign with a message for food recipients: “We Love You and Are Praying for You.”
“Everybody just needs to be encouraged. So we thought we can just show up and let people know we care about them and we love them,” said Melissa Montana, the station's president and CEO.
“We're just trying to be light in darkness,” she added.
Twenty-five members of the National Guard's 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry Regiment directed traffic, packed food into boxes and placed each box into a waiting vehicle.
“Everyone just wanted to help out the community the best they could,” said Staff Sgt. Charles Smith, who works for a Columbia City auto dealership.
Wolf said the regiment's citizen soldiers filled 4,000 boxes with food last week at Community Harvest headquarters.
“The Guard has been a blessing,” he said. “If we don't have them, we would have a lot less folks getting fed.”
Wolf said the food bank has been able to increase assistance through donations.
“Foundations have been helping us out. Private donations have been coming in,” he said.
The Walmart center in Garrett has provided produce to Community Harvest, which also is getting supplies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wolf said.
“It's flowing pretty good, and we're giving it out as quick as we can,” he said.
Monday's distribution included chicken, turkey, bananas, blueberries, cauliflower, milk and cottage cheese.
And $10 bills, while they lasted. A pedestrian approached the man who was handing them out.
“Will you help me?” she asked.
“You're not in a car,” he told her.
“I still need money to get stuff at the store,” she said. “Please. Please, sir.”
He gave her $10.
“Thank you,” she said. “God bless you.”