INDIANAPOLIS — "We haven't seen any improvement among the needy (in America)," said John Whitaker. "If anything, we're going backwards."
That helps explain why Whitaker, the operations director at Midwest Food Bank, and more than 250 volunteers from PepsiCo, Marsh, Feed the Children, and other organizations convened at the food bank recently to distribute food and other necessities to some 800 local families.
PepsiCo and its affiliate Frito Lay donated food like chips and drinks, including Gatorade, to the cause. Marsh offered bananas and lettuce. Families also received 10-pound boxes of personal care products.
"It's a good variety," said Pat Wolter, Frito Lay's zone business manager for Indianapolis and one of the volunteers. "People have been very thankful."
These companies regularly donate supplies to the Midwest Food Bank, as well as to other charitable organizations.
"We're always trying to reach out to the community and see what we can do," Wolter said.
It's needed. Whitaker says demand at Midwest Food Bank's Indianapolis location is up 30 percent. He estimates one out of five Hoosiers are using pantries such as this, and almost 300,000 Indiana children are missing meals because of poverty.
"Many of the people who come wish they didn't have to," Whitaker said. "They're just like you and I. They've just had an event in their lives that's caused them to be in need. We don't put people down to lift them up. We just give them food and don't question."
Whitaker started the Midwest Food Bank here almost five years ago. The organization also has locations in Arizona, Georgia, and Illinois. A faith-based mission, they also offer disaster relief and international aid to places like the Philippines and Haiti. Locally, they feed about 60,000 people a month through 250 faith-based and social service organizations in 47 Indiana counties. All on a budget of about $350,000.
"We're very efficient in what we do," Whitaker said. "For every dollar given to us, we can give someone $30 worth of food at no cost to them. That's unique for a food bank. Most charge a small handling fee, so they actually make money on the needy. We just don't feel like that's right."
Midwest Food Bank only has four employees, and two of them are part-time. They rely heavily on volunteers. This year Whitaker expects 2,600 people to donate more than 22,000 hours of their time.
"It's a tremendous model of generosity," he said. "Our part is to simply bridge the gap between prosperity and poverty in the name of Jesus Christ. We want to give people more than food. We want to give them hope. That's the only place I know where hope comes from."
Midwest Food Bank also depends on food donations. Much of that is non-perishable, which means it's not that healthy. The onerous is on the pantry to supply healthier choices.
"That puts a real strain on our operating budget," Whitaker said.
They do have their own garden, which is expected to yield more than 12,000 pounds of fresh produce this year. Myanmar refugees help tend it and get to take a share of the produce.
Even after all that, Midwest Food Bank and others like them can't keep up with demand.
"I have 70 agencies on a waiting list that I can't give food to because we don't have enough," Whitaker said.
Anyone can volunteer or donate. Midwest Food Bank is at 6450 S. Belmont. It's open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays but accepts donations any time. Call 786-8980 or visit the website at MidwestFoodBank.org for more information.
"The best advertising we get is when someone gets food from us and is thankful, and they come back and serve or give when they get back on their feet," Whitaker said.