Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Hoosiers seem to have settled into a “new normal” – new work procedures, restrictions on family and social lives, and new ways of doing familiar things.
But that picture is deceptive. More than a quarter of a million Hoosiers have lost jobs or had work hours drastically curtailed. Many are struggling to keep children in school, keep a roof over their family's heads, cover utilities and pay medical bills. Social workers attest that groceries are usually the last priority for struggling families.
When an estimated 80,000 northeast Indiana residents live with hunger day to day, and their ranks are expected to increase by 50% as the pandemic goes on, they must rely on the generosity and hard work of community members who keep food banks operating during the worst of times.
Since March, many of those community members have been with the Indiana National Guard. When many food bank and pantry volunteers – most of whom are older than 60 – were effectively furloughed in March to protect them from potential infection, the Guard rode in to rescue the Community Harvest Food Bank at Tillman Road and U.S. 27 (Lafayette Street) in southeast Fort Wayne.
Community Harvest provides vital food assistance through its smaller affiliated food banks and food pantries. About 30 Guard members work six days a week, sorting and filling roughly 2,000 boxes of food each week for drive-by distribution on Saturdays to anybody who needs it.
“We couldn't have done what we did without them,” said Carmen Cumberland, Community Harvest's executive president. The Guard assignment ends on Sept. 30, and Community Harvest is scrambling to recruit volunteers to take their place. The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration said safety protocols are in place to protect all new and returning volunteers.
“I think 50 volunteers would be a good number through the week,” Cumberland said. “We could use 50 to 60 on Saturdays, too. We have 1,200 to 1,300 cars go through every Saturday.”
Cumberland said Community Harvest received food donations and funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture via the CARES Act that Congress enacted in March, and from Feeding Indiana's Hungry. She said much of that assistance comes from a provision of CARES that reimburses retailers who supplied the restaurant and hospitality industries before the pandemic for unused food they donated to Community Harvest and other food banks around the country. The reimbursement program is scheduled to end Oct. 31.
Cumberland said that while monetary donations have continued to come in from regular donors, food donations slowed to a trickle because many people were hoarding food and supplies, rather than donating them. She said funds have been set aside to purchase food, but it's hard to predict how donors will behave as the pandemic grinds on into the fall and next year.
As local, state and federal officials grapple with the potential fallout from an uncertain future, the best way residents can help our northeast Indiana neighbors in need is to place themselves squarely and safely on the front lines of our community.
Complete a form at OperationFood.IN.gov. You will be contacted by your regional food bank to be matched with a volunteer assignment. To volunteer locally, call Community Harvest Food Bank at 260-447-3696.