The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 10, 2017 1:00 am

Hunger persists, despite job gains

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

It's hard to imagine what 13.1 million pounds of food looks like. Katie Savoie can help you understand the scope, though.

If you turn your attention from pounds to people, Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana helped feed nearly 90,000 area residents in the past year.

“It's just amazing what we're able to do because of the generosity from the community and individuals,” said Savoie, a grant writer for the food bank.

Many of those who received assistance live in Allen County. Some live in Whitley and Wells counties, which are also part of the Fort Wayne metro area. Others who benefited reside in the six additional counties Community Harvest serves.

And there's more than one way to look at how far 13.1 million pounds of food can go, Savoie said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 1.2 pounds of food generally makes one meal, so you could say it provided nearly 11 million meals for people who might at some point have gone hungry.

Unemployment might be minimal – just 3.2 percent in July for the Fort Wayne metropolitan area, compared with 7.6 percent for the same month five years ago – but thousands are still struggling to make ends meet. They're living on the edge, for various reasons, and turning to churches and community agencies with hunger-relief programs.

Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County has 26 pantries in the county and distributes 85,500 pounds of food monthly. People can get a five-day emergency supply of food every 30 days.

Carmen Cumberland, executive president of Community Harvest, said the food bank has served about 90,000 people the past several years. It has nearly 400 member agencies, including churches that offer food pantries, in its nine-county area.

The latest “Map the Meal Gap” report from Feeding America, a network of about 200 food banks, says 12.9 percent of the population in Community Harvest's service area is “food insecure,” Savoie said. That means 85,160 people – including 31,930 youths younger than 18 – don't always know where they'll get their next meal.

The hunger problem isn't limited to northeast Indiana. Feeding America's website says 1 in 7 Americans struggles with hunger. According to the World Food Program, a nonprofit, 1 out of every 9 people globally suffers from chronic hunger. In 2016, contributions to that organization helped provide food aid to more than 82 million, according to its website.

When you're part of those statistics, the choices are tough. Some debate whether to pay a utility bill or buy groceries.

The need for food assistance might be short term, but sometimes it's long term, particularly for those considered the working poor. Others also benefit.

Karen Burnside-Strack, 61, has been a member of Trinity United Methodist Church nearly 15 years and volunteered in its pantry, affiliated with Associated Churches.

These days, Burnside-Strack is a regular client, rarely missing a monthly food distribution. It has been that way the last two years.

She used to work full time, even running a home-based child care at one point. But in 2013, Burnside-Strack shifted to part-time work. The toll of fighting metastatic breast cancer forced her to slow down.

In June, Burnside-Strack had to stop working and is on disability, which she said doesn't pay much. As a volunteer at Trinity's food pantry, she didn't envision one day being a beneficiary. But the assistance has been invaluable.

“I'm unable to work any longer, and so it's been just a godsend to me. I don't know what we'd do without it,” said Burnside-Strack, who has an 18-year-old son at home who graduated high school this year. Her son is working part time, hoping to find additional work, trying to pay for a vehicle and the insurance it requires.

Waynedale United Methodist Church provides food assistance for two hours three days a week, partnering with Community Harvest and Associated Churches.

One or two new families show up most every time the church's food pantry is open, said Carolyn Dikty, the volunteer who oversees it.

“We have people come in that are working, but they need extra help. We have a lot of people that all of a sudden have lost their jobs and haven't been yet able to get another job, or they're part-time workers,” Dikty said. “We're there for them when they need us.”

The pantry at Avalon Missionary Church served 349 households in July, providing enough food for about 1,590 people. 

There have been months where Avalon, which buys food from Community Harvest, has served nearly 500 households, said Nancy Leming, Avalon's campus ministry coordinator.

Summer months are sometimes busier because the winter weather “can get pretty nasty,” Leming said.

The clientele at Avalon and Waynedale United is similar.

“Some of the families that come through, the families have jobs, but they're just struggling to make ends meet,” Leming said. 

Demand for food assistance programs dropped after the last recession, but the “new economy” has left many people behind, said Roger Reece, executive pastor of Associated Churches. Some workers don't have the skills for the better-paying jobs employers find hard to fill.

Last year, Associated Churches' food distribution network served 32,107 families, or 98,499 individuals. In 2015, there were 33,765 families, or 102,051 people.

Repeat customers are not uncommon.

Reece's thoughts quickly turned to a single parent of two children who works full time at a local grocery/department store retailer. She's a regular for food assistance, “a hard-working mother raising two kids on her own and she needs help,” he said. 

Community Harvest has 10 hunger-relief programs, including a Farm Wagon mobile pantry that launched about 18 years ago when the late Jane Avery was executive director. The pantry makes 77 stops each month in northeast Indiana, distributing fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products including yogurt and milk, and sandwich bread.

Local growers and major grocery retailers contribute. The mobile distribution, Savoie said, helps many people who live in areas known as food deserts where it's difficult to get affordable, nutritious items.

Cumberland, Community Harvest's president, said the nonprofit's SeniorPak program is growing because many grandparents are helping to raise grandchildren. Cumberland recalls a few years ago when the SeniorPak had about 750 enrolled. Now, more than 1,000 people age 60 or older are recipients. 

Even if seniors are getting Social Security, their income is often limited, so they may be making choices between food and medication. SeniorPak provides a 20-plus-pound bag of groceries every two weeks.

The food bank's Kids BackPack program is also growing. Enrollment for the fiscal year that ended in June was 243 youths. But Community Harvest has just added more than 100 youths, so the program now has 348 enrolled, Savoie said.

Kids BackPack provides a 10-pound bag of food on the weekends for children who are referred by teachers and guidance staff. The program is designed to ensure a sibling of the child enrolled also doesn't fall victim to hunger.

“Even if teenagers get food, they'll often give it to a younger, hungry sibling,” Savoie said. “We were able to add 100 this year because of some generous donors.

“I think there's a special place in a lot of people's hearts for children who don't have enough to eat because they're not able to provide for themselves.”

Being able to provide the assistance is gratifying, whether for seniors or children. Cumberland said Community Harvest has about 6,600 volunteers, or the equivalent of 32 staff members. That's close to the 33 full-time and four part-timers the food bank employs.

At a March fundraising gala, Savoie recalls remarks shared by a member from a local church that is a mobile wagon stop. They said hunger is “not a problem that comes back in weeks or months, but it comes back in hours.”

Assistance agents

Many organizations in the Fort Wayne area provide various assistance to those whose incomes don't cover needs, including food. They include:

• Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County have several programs, including 26 food pantries. To find out where the closest is, go to

More information, including how to donate, is on the organization's website, or call 260-422-3528

• Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana has 10 hunger-relief programs. To find out more, go to or call 260-447-3696

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