MUNCIE, Ind. — More than 400 cars were bumper-to-bumper in the Muncie Mall parking lot on Thursday, March 26 as families waited for Second Harvest Food Bank volunteers to pass out food.
A similar scene played out at another tailgate event on March 20 at Delta High School, with about 400 cars waiting for goods.
Typically, the tailgates see around 250 cars. But in the last week, that number has jumped to between 400 and 500, said Tim Kean, president and CEO of Second Harvest.
As coronavirus continues to create restrictions, limit income for many and create worry, and as grocery store shelves remain bare, Kean said food banks are now first responders to hunger.
To alleviate that need, Second Harvest has worked to secure more semi-loads of food and has scheduled extra tailgate events from a few times a month, to a few times a week.
“You literally can’t get away from the message that tens of thousands of people are affected by school closures or by business closures,” Kean told The Star Press last week. “It now, immediately, put thousands of people at risk of hunger that didn’t have that circumstance last week.”
Despite the growing need, he doesn’t expect many donations to be coming in from traditional food donors, like grocery stores or distribution centers.
The organization expects the need to continue, in the short term, until more about the crisis is known. With an extra truck, they haven’t completely run out of food at the tailgates. even as attendee numbers grow.
Pantry attendee numbers continue to grow
Pantry attendees have also increased at smaller events held by schools.
It was 30 minutes before the food pantry event would begin on March 19, but cars were already bumper-to-bumper at South View Elementary School.
One hundred boxes of food had been prepared for the monthly food pantry the school has in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank. To keep community members safe, the pantry was held outside in a drive-thru fashion.
With more cars pulling up and rain on the way, Principal Anthony Williams said they decided to start handing food out early.
Typically, the food drive is held between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sometimes, there’s even food leftover, which is donated to a local church.
“For the most part, we usually have a pretty good turnout with our South View families,” Williams said. “With this one, we had 100 boxes prepared, and all 100 of those boxes were all distributed in less than 45 minutes.”
Are food banks considered “essential?”
After Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay-at-home order with exceptions to “essential businesses” earlier this week, many wondered what businesses would be considered essential.
Second Harvest partners with 96 different agencies in eight different counties. Would they still be allowed to operate?
“We’ve always been considered ‘essential’ in terms of providing the food that people need,” Kean said. “So, at this point, as long as grocery stores are allowed to be open, we probably would be deemed essential as well.”
So far, only four partner agencies have closed their doors completely.
The rest have closed their office doors, but are operating as a drive-thru or asking attendees to pick up goods outside.
“Unless we’re otherwise directed, we plan to still be open in this expanded version of the work that we do,” Kean said. “We’re not looking at slowing down or closing down, unless otherwise directed.”
In desperate need of volunteers across the state
On March 23, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration called on Indiana residents to help keep the state’s network of food pantries open.
““Now is the time for us as Hoosiers to double down on our best quality, serving each other,” said Jennifer Sullivan, FSSA Secretary, in a press release. “Food pantries are critical harbors of hope in many local communities, and with them facing difficulties operating and possibly reducing the food supply to our neighbors in need, it’s time to sound a loud call for help across the state.”
Two days later, Holcomb took to Twitter, asking anyone healthy and under 60 to volunteer.
Kean said that volunteer numbers at Second Harvest have dropped in response to coronavirus, and while he said it’s a good thing people are social distancing, the organization needs volunteers to function.
Besides taking pantry events outside, Kean said volunteers have been washing their hands, sanitizing and practicing social distancing while distributing food to those in need.
“We have a lot of work today and we rely tremendously on volunteers,” Kean said. “People that have time and are interested and don’t feel like they’d be putting themselves at risk, we’d love to have you.”
As Second Harvest continues to secure more truck-loads of food for tailgates and partners, Kean said money is running out quickly.
Calling on the community for support, the organization launched the “Fill-a-Bowl” campaign this week.
Between March 24 and April 3, Second Harvest is hoping to raise $50,000 for distribution needs.
To donate or volunteer, visit curehunger.org.
Having trouble securing food? The FSSA encourages Indiana residents to call 2-1-1 and ask for a list of nearby food pantries.
Charlotte Stefanski is a reporter at the Star Press. Contact her at 765-283-5543, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @CharStefanski.