Packed with Care: Hendricks County food pantries shift to new strategies to feed hungry during COVID-19 pandemic
By Lindsay Doty
Volunteer Sandy Summerlot efficiently boxes up a mix of canned green beans, hearty soups, frozen meats, mac and cheese and paper towels at the Whitestone Christian Church pantry in Coatesville.
Sandy Summerlot volunteered to help prepare food packages. (Photos by Eric Pritchett)
The to-go boxes are now being distributed to families in need via a drive-through.
It’s the new “normal” for charities trying to help the hungry in the era of COVID-19.
Instead of shopping at their local pantry, families pick up items from their vehicles.
“We box as we go. We usually get between 20 to 40 families,” said Sumerlot, a nurse and parishioner who has been volunteering at the pantry twice a month for the last decade. Her heart is in it.
“It’s truly a God thing. We are a little church. We only have 40 to 50 attend church, and we feed 200 to 400 a month. If that’s God not working in our lives,” said the Avon resident. “When you see a child get cereal, something they probably don’t’ ever get, it just makes me very happy.”
Her church is one of 21 food pantry locations that belong to the Hendricks County Food Pantry Coalition (HCFPC). The group (formed in 2006) works to educate and help community pantries with nutritional needs. Last year, the pantries provided food to needy families over 23,700 times.
This month, they’ve all gone to drive-thru alternatives while coalition leaders work to keep up with the changing scenario in the wake of the virus.
Don Wilson helps load vehicles with packages from the Whitestone Food Pantry
There are new concerns about food supply and demand.
“The pantries are seeing rising numbers coming in, so we are just on the cusp of this,” said Melinda Duckett, HCFPC board member and nutrition education program community wellness coordinator for Purdue Extension covering Hendricks County.
She says donation streams are starting to be impacted.
“Most of the pantries are located in churches, so a big part of support comes from churches who are no longer meeting,” said Duckett.
Many pantries also depend on food donations through partnerships with Gleaners Food Bank. They collect and distribute extras from partner grocers like Walmart and Meijer. But with stores struggling to restock their shelves, there are limited extras to donate.
“If they have anything, it’s very little. That donation is starting to drop. These are big streams of donations that come into pantries, that due to the circumstances, we won’t get,” said Duckett.
To get ahead of it, the board has been talking with pantry leaders virtually to discuss plans to stretch and share resources, including food, volunteers and transportation to get donations to the pantries. As of print time, coalition leaders were discussing closing some of the pantries to combine efforts.
“What I want pantries to do is join together. Instead of all three giving out peanut butter, we can expand what we are giving on. We want to be more efficient and effective giving families the food they can use,” said Duckett. “We are applying for grants and talking with donors. If we receive funding, we will explore opportunities to purchase items in bulk to share with the pantries and to stretch our funds.”
Jason Van Curen and Don Wilson take food out to be loaded up. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing, the church had a drive through food pantry instead of inviting guests inside.
Besides supplies, they’re also seeing regular volunteers cancel. Many are older and don’t want to risk getting sick.
“We’ve had some say, ‘I have a condition, and I don’t want to come in.’ Others have stepped up,” said Duckett, who spent last Friday bagging items with a small group for a drive-thru pantry in Danville.
She’s also heading up an effort to coordinate with churches and food pantries to get supplies to people who are not leaving their homes.
Through the changes, the team is working to stress hygiene for its volunteers and donation families.
“After you’ve handled bagging things, wash your hands. After you open a can of soup at home, wash your hands. We have to push good hygiene on both ends of it,” said Duckett.
For those on the frontlines, families who need help are thankful for their efforts in a difficult time.
“God has told us to help people, and I think we can,” said volunteer Summerlot.