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Pantry on Wheels Enables Indiana Food Bank to Increase Access for Food Insecure

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Mobile Pantry Program brings pantry on wheels to seniors in Wayne County, Indiana.

July 27, 2016 |

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Mobile Pantry Program brings pantry on wheels to seniors in Wayne County, Indiana.

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Mobile Pantry Program brings pantry on wheels to seniors in Wayne County, Indiana. (Photo courtesy of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana)

On a hot summer afternoon near Indianapolis, people start lining up early when the Gleaners Mobile Pantry truck pulls into a community partner parking lot. They may stand in line up to two hours to walk through the pop-up marketplace, where they can select dry goods and meats and fresh produce, when available, from the farmers’ market-style food pantry.

Kathy Hahn Keiner, chief programs and agency relations officer at Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, is one of the people running the Mobile Pantry program and often rides along to help set up the mobile marketplace. Gleaners has two refrigerated trucks and a fleet of smaller trucks that provide close to 300 mobile pantries a year.

“At a mobile pantry we’ll serve 150 to 200 families in a two-hour distribution. There may be three or four people to a family, so over 12 months that’s a lot of people. The most we’ve ever done at once is five on a Saturday, but that’s an awful lot,” Hahn Keiner says.

The need for food pantry services in Indiana hasn’t gone down, even as unemployment has dropped, she says. In fact, Indiana’s Emergency Food Resource Center, directed by Perdue University’s Department of Nutrition, estimates 15.8 percent of Hoosiers are living in poverty, with 14.1 percent of Indiana residents experiencing food insecurity.

“There are all kinds of reasons people don’t have food. We’re serving the working poor,” she said. “They have jobs, but they’re either not making as much as they used to, or they have a lot of medical bills, or they’re feeding two or three generations. We have a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren, and they weren’t planning on that later in life.”

Hahn Keiner points to medical expenses and unemployment as reasons many first-time shoppers end up visiting the mobile pantry. These first-timers may find themselves in uncharted territory, not knowing where to go for help.

“For the most part, people aren’t going to wait in the heat or cold unless there really is a need. We see some of the same faces, but some people only come a few times a year. We do have some that regularly depend on us, but it’s amazing how many people say, ‘I just lost my job and I don’t know what to do.’ We ask if they know about 211 and other resources—people don’t know what resources are available if they’ve never had to do it,” she says.

The program has been so successful that Gleaners started two new mobile pantry programs. A senior mobile pantry was launched specifically for partner senior centers and community centers to serve people over the age of 55.

A more unusual program is the Community Action Relief Effort, or C.A.R.E., mobile pantry, launched in 2015. The C.A.R.E. program brings groceries, fresh produce and meats to six targeted neighborhoods in Indianapolis that have high poverty rates, high crime rates and a high number of children on federal food assistance who may not have access to food during the summer.

“(Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief) Troy Riggs saw data that showed 27 percent of homicides are committed in these areas, and when he met with young people they said they didn’t have mentors…and they were hungry. So, we started a partnership with the City of Indianapolis, in partnership with the police, fire and EMS in Marion County,” Hahn Keiner said.

In its inaugural year, the C.A.R.E. program operated 65 mobile pantries, each staffed by police, firefighters and EMS to help promote friendlier relationships in the community.

“Police relations around the country are pretty volatile, and this was more of a positive approach. This year we’ve got the same partnership, we have police, fire or EMS volunteers, and it gives them an opportunity to help people outside of an emergency situation.”

How can people get involved with Gleaners or other food pantries? Hahn Keiner suggests organizing a fund drive.

“Food banks are buying more food than ever,” she said. “People like the engagement of cans of food, and that’s wonderful because we can talk about the need in a school or a church, but if we had our druthers we’d do a fund drive because we can do so much with that.”

Since Gleaners was founded 36 years ago, the food banking world has changed. Retailers are now flash-freezing unsold meat to be sold inexpensively to food banks. The same is true for produce. Hahn Keiner says food banks now rely on financial donations.

“When we do fund drives, we have purchasing power,” she said. “Around 33 million pounds of food go out of our pantry, and a lot of that is purchased. We really maximize our impact with fund drives.”

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