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Central Indiana food pantries battle high demand with a smile

Pandemic-era emergency SNAP benefits ended nationwide on March 1, 2023.

GREENWOOD, Ind. — A weekly trip to a food pantry in Johnson County could save an average family up to $600 per month.

That's according to IMPACT Center Pastor Steve Saunders.

The IMPACT Center is a food and clothing ministry located on the campus of Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood.

"We really focus on the healthier items," said Saunders, "because those are the items that so many of our families go without."

Saunders says it takes about 200 volunteers to feed more than 450 families each and every week.

Volunteers also operate a clothing store, available to Hoosiers at no cost once a month.

Staff at the IMPACT Center say they've seen an increased need in recent months.

Pandemic-era emergency SNAP benefits ended nationwide on March 1, 2023. However, those same benefits ended in Indiana nearly 10 months prior.   

Credit: WTHR

That means Hoosier families saw their wallets shrink by at least $95 per month.

During that time, staff at Indiana 211 say the number of food referrals has increased more than 145% over the course of one year.

That's why Saunders' team aims to serve the whole person – physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"We've been resourced in a way to at least give people an assurance that their pantry is going to be filled for that week," Saunders said. "That's not something that they are going to have to worry about. Maybe for the couple hours that they are here, they can have a sense of joy in who they are, what God created them for, even in the midst of what they're going through."

The food panty operates like a grocery store. Families are given points based on the number of people in their household.

Credit: WTHR

The pantry also provides fresh produce, meats, dairy products, toiletry items and household products. Most of the fresh items are available for "zero points."

Families can visit the pantry once a week, according to Saunders, which he estimates is about $150 worth of products.

"There should be no shame in asking for help," Saunders said.

Meanwhile in Hamilton County, a group of volunteers called Fueled For School prioritize hungry students.

"We are here to help," said Audra Shock, director of operations.

Credit: WTHR

Fueled For School gives Noblesville students free, healthy meals when school is not in session, like on the weekends and during spring break.

"Definitely over the past year," said Shock. "We've seen about a 20% increase in the request for food for children."

Each week, volunteers carefully assemble food bags and distribute them to 10 Noblesville schools, serving more than 400 students.

"Our goal is to make sure no child is hungry," Shock said.

Shock said Fueled For School wouldn't be possible without volunteers and donations.

"The donations from the community make this happen," said Shock.

Personally, Shock says she knows asking for assistance can be difficult. She wants other Hoosiers to know it's okay to ask for help.

"There have been times that I've even needed help," said Shock, "and so I think that's what keeps me going."

Back in Greenwood, Saunders says it is faith, service and love that keeps him going.

"Everyone needs to feel like they are accepted," said Saunders. "Like they are a part of something."

Credit: WTHR

Saunders says each distribution is complete with a worship service in the center's gathering room after visitors share a freshly prepared meal.

"We want people to feel accepted and not to feel like they are out of place or less than," said Saunders, "because we all need a hand up every once in a while."

At each worship service, guests also have a chance to give, if they are able.

"There's a lot of self-respect that comes from that," said Saunders, "knowing that they are actually helping someone else in the process of getting help themselves."

The IMPACT Center partners with organizations like Midwest Food Bank, Meijer, Kroger, and Walmart, in addition to community groups.

Saunders says the center also relies on support from the community, including monetary donations.

"That always gives us the most flexibility," said Saunders.

The IMPACT Center also serves as a food bank for 10 area pantries, including three other IMPACT locations in Marion County.

Experts say anyone needing immediate assistance can contact Indiana 211 to reach a free service nearby.

"We really want people to know there are opportunities for them to get food items," Saunders said.

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