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Food pantries need volunteers as national guard pandemic response mission draws to a close

The pandemic has exacerbated the demand for food pantries in a state that had high food insecurity prior to 2020.

INDIANAPOLIS — The pandemic has exacerbated the demand for food pantries in a state that had high food insecurity prior to 2020.

"About 40 percent of everybody coming through our (food pantry) lines has never needed food assistance before,” said Treea Burgess, manager of group volunteers at Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

With the current state of the U.S. economy, that demand is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

“Last year, our average was closer to say 1,300 to 1,500 households a week. What we served in a week last year, we serve in just one day now,” Burgess said.

In March, National Guardsmen were activated in Indiana at the direction of their governors, to assist with pandemic response efforts. Gleaners Food Bank said they’ve been a vital part of keeping up with the increasing demand for access to food. But their pandemic response mission is coming to a close.

“In October, there will be no guard here,” Burgess said. “And if we don’t have those volunteers, 60 a day, 30 for each shift, we’re not going to be able to keep up with the need."

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana said they began to phase in volunteers after Labor Day.

“Out of the 180 (volunteers) we’ve needed each week, we’ve been pushing about 75 percent for these last couple weeks of September,” Burgess said. “In October, right now, we’re only about 30 percent booked, so the need for October, that’s really going to make it or break it for us."

Some Hoosiers who volunteered at Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana prior to the pandemic have returned. Melanie Harris has been volunteering at the food bank since 2018 and said there’s fewer full-time volunteers because many were elderly and didn't come back.

Prior to the pandemic, Harris said there was very limited lifting because the customers had grocery carts. Now, they're lifting and putting the food items into the trunks of the cars.

Protocol-wise, Harris said volunteers get a temperature check and wear gloves, a mask and bright neon security vest.

Customers receive enough frozen meat, dairy, eggs and fresh produce for a week for however many people are in their household. The service is also completely contactless now.

“We are not the food police. If you say that you’re hungry, we’re going to give you food, and that’s just all there is to it,” Burgess said.

While the food pantry’s main location in Indianapolis is a drive-thru, Gleaners has additional outreach efforts across all of its 21 counties for those without transport. 

Volunteers interested in signing up to help the effort at Gleaners Food Bank must be 18 and over and can sign up online. If you are based outside of the 21 counties Gleaners serves and want to volunteer, you can sign up or donate via the state website Operationfood.IN.gov. The website also helps residents find food pantries in their area.

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