Food pantries

In this 2015 file photo, Woodview Elementary School students Ali Miller, Audrey Sherman and Georgia Wiggins, carry boxes of food through the school as part of the annual holiday food drive. The donated food benefitted the Nappanee Open Door Pantry.

Hunger doesn’t take a holiday, and as the holidays arrive the demand on local food pantries is expected to increase as families gather and schools take breaks — meaning school lunches will not be available to nourish children.

The Food Bank of Northern Indiana oversees the distribution of goods and provides vital resources for many community food providers throughout Michiana. Those local resources provide families with food year-round and often see a spike for services this time of year.

In 2020, the food bank distributed more than 11 million pounds of food, according to the agency. That food helped feed more than 29,000 children.

Executive Director and CEO Marijo Martinec said the agency distributes food to local pantries, soup kitchens, daycares and shelters.

“The Food Bank of Northern Indiana has a network of 125 agency partners in its six-county service area,” Martinec said. “The Food Bank of Northern Indiana also has an onsite pantry — the Community Food Pantry of St. Joseph County.”

Additionally, the Food Bank has established programs to help other organizations provide resources and services to those in their communities. These programs include the Food 4 Kids Backpack Program, the Senior Nutrition Program, Healthy Choice Market, and the Mobile Food Pantry Program.

“[We also work with] two programs through the USDA — Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors ages 60 and over, and The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food through specific agencies in our six-county service area,” Martinec said.

Smaller food banks rely heavily on this network of resources to get the goods they need for their localized community, she said. The Open Door Pantry, 292 S. Main St. in Nappanee, is one of many pantries that is helped by the Food Bank.

Open Door President John Personett is glad they have been able to serve the community for 50 years as of this upcoming year. The agency receives most of its donations through the Food Bank, but also relies on local food drives for necessities.

“Donations come from monetary donations and a couple of local schools, like NorthWood High School, do food drives,” Personett said. “Normally the Boy Scouts do something also.”

MONEY IS SOMETIMES BEST

While food banks are always in need of food and hygiene product donations, monetary donations can often be more valuable to smaller organizations with very specific needs.

“I would think about monetary donations,” Personett said. “We are then able to buy things with a lesser price than what going to the grocery store can do for people because we can buy in volume. We always tell people that whatever’s on sale is what we need because we get more for the money.”

Assessing when the need for food pantry services is most prevalent can be difficult, since tracking this information isn’t always simple. However, the colder months tend to be a busier time for most local pantries.

“Hunger is year-round, but there are pockets of time that are busy — the holidays are an especially busy time of year because so much about the holiday season is centered around food,” Martinec said. “Winter months are challenging for those who struggle with hunger and have high fuel expenses.”

Similarly, most people don’t realize that the summer months can be an extremely difficult time for families. During the summer, many jobs are off for a few months causing families who rely on a steady income to struggle. Kids also stay home from school during that time, taking away school lunches and valuable sources of food for low-income families.

During the colder months and approaching holiday season certain items become more important for food banks and pantries to keep stocked. Staples are one of the most important items to donate to pantries because of their extended shelf life.

“During the holiday season, we are always in need of the items needed to make holiday meals, including macaroni and cheese, cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup, canned sweet potatoes, turkeys, hams, etc.,” Martinec said. “All the items that one typically has on their holiday meal table. Pantry shoppers also welcome healthier food options, such as low sugar and low sodium items.”

Over the years, these needs have shifted and will continue to shift based on income and housing prices in local communities. Even during the pandemic, some organizations noticed a decreased need within their community due to government tax rebates and COVID-19 assistance programs.

Furthermore, many programs require that individuals meet specific needs before they can receive assistance from their organizations. At the Open Door, this means individuals can only receive food help three times a month and must meet specific regulations to ensure everyone in need can receive vital nutrition.

“We have continued to see a rise in the need for food assistance during this time of the year, so much about the holiday season is centered around food,” Martinec said.

For those in need during the winter and holiday season, there are resources available to help. Donations are also encouraged. Even the smallest of monetary donations can provide pounds of food for families in need. Volunteering with local pantries, shelters, soup kitchens or food banks is also a great way to give back this holiday season.

“Hunger is often silent because there is so much shame in not being able to feed yourself or your family,” Martinec said. “Hunger does not discriminate. So many are often one event from going hungry — job loss, health issues, and unexpected expenses. Hunger happens at all ages — young people, singles, working families, and seniors in our community.”

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