By Wade Coggeshall
DANVILLE — The Hendricks County Food Pantry Coalition reflected on its most demanding year yet during a luncheon last Friday at Hendricks Regional Health.
According to in-house numbers provided by the coalition's 22 pantries, they collectively served almost 12,000 families in 2012 (measured from Nov. 30 of last year to Dec. 1 of this year). That marks a 22 percent increase from the previous year. Before that the increase had only been 6 percent.
"If I had to spend 22 percent more on food, that would hurt me," said Steven Hamilton, an associate pastor at Grace Pointe Church of the Nazarene who was elected president of the food pantry coalition this year. "It's hurting every one of these pantries to have to provide that many more meals."
Stilesville Christian Church's food pantry is a typical example. They served 15 families when Bill Matlock assumed management of the facility a couple of years ago. That number is in the triple digits now. It's grown so dramatically that Matlock's afraid they can only be open once a month now instead of twice.
"Things like paper towels and toilet paper are as popular as food. It's been tough keeping items like that in stock," said Matlock, noting that health and beauty products can't be bought using government food stamps. "I even have people ask me for money for gas. I tell them we're a small congregation and can't afford that."
Gleaners Food Bank of Indianapolis recently distributed food at Stilesville Christian Church. Matlock says in two hours they served 245 families. He'd like to conduct a job fair there in similar fashion.
"The people I see really want to be able to provide for themselves," Matlock said. "They just don't have the means right now."
The luncheon was one small way to show appreciation to the volunteers staffing these food pantries.
"This group of people is making a dramatic difference in people's lives," Hamilton said.
The coalition, which is managed through the Purdue Cooperative Extension Office of Hendricks County, was formed to pool resources and expertise. A member of Hamilton's church recently donated a pole barn where the pantries can store excess supplies.
"So if the Hazelwood food pantry needs help, we have the resources to restock them," Hamilton said. "The pole barn has changed what we do dramatically."
Not that there's much left over. Individual donations are appreciated, but the coalition is trying to find more corporate partners that can provide supplies in bulk.
"We all struggle," Hamilton said. "This year has been especially hard. Some pantries were open twice a month, but because of demand they can only be open once a month now. They can't keep their shelves stocked."
That's forcing many volunteers to be logistics specialists.
"We're taking people that have been nurses, mechanics - all these different occupations - and asked them to strategically plan how to get stuff to people," Hamilton said. "It's not their normal job. They've had to think outside the box and find a way to make it work. That's the great thing about the coalition. We're learning from each other."
Not every food pantry in the county has been willing to join. The top reason seems to be a fear of having to adhere to outside rules. Hamilton says it's not their intention to tell anyone what to do.
"They run it as they see fit," he said. "We're only showing them what has worked for other pantries. We want to help everyone run more efficiently, and therefore feed more people."
It's a model that's getting notice from others. Eric Hessel of the Hendricks County Community Foundation says he's received inquiries from other such foundations about how the coalition works. He presented a check for $8,800 to the collective at the luncheon. Each pantry will get about $400 for operating expenses.
"We use you guys as a shining example of how a group can come together and really make a difference," Hessel told the gathering. "We really value this kind of collaboration."