After several months moving boxes and helping people with food, Indiana National Guard soldiers at Old Bethel & Partners can use volunteers.
Jeff Maag knows what it’s like to go a day without food. He remembers the hunger he felt as a kid waiting for his mom to scrape something together or for a friend to drop food off.
And that’s why Maag, 52, volunteers at the Old Bethel and Partners food pantry on East 21st Street near North Franklin Road.
The pantry is now in desperate need of volunteers like Maag after the 10 soldiers from the National Guard who have worked at the pantry since the start of the coronavirus pandemic began to leave this week, said Arin Schellenberg, the program manager at the pantry.
Across Indiana, most National Guard soldiers will be leaving food banks and pantries this week despite the continued high demand for food during the pandemic-related economic crisis that put hundreds of thousands of Indiana residents out of work. Food banks and pantries in Indiana are seeing as much as double the amount of people who typically come by, and many food bank operators are worried they will have to cut back on hours without the help.
National Guard soldier Marissa Lopez fills a cart at Old Bethel & Partners food pantry in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
The Old Bethel and Partners food pantry, a charity that serves 1,400 people a week in Indianapolis, is getting some help from a local urban farm for a few weeks after the soldiers leave. But the pantry will likely have to close on Thursdays if more volunteers do not step forward, remaining open only two days a week.
She said finding volunteers to replace the Guard has been difficult because people are worried about contracting the coronavirus.
“You’re not just dealing with people who say I have a job or I’m out of town,” she said. “They say, ‘I can’t do it because I’m not comfortable in public. I can’t do it because I don’t want to be around people.'”
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and the nonprofit Feeding Indiana’s Hungry are recruiting volunteers to fill the gap after the soldiers leave.
After this month, only about 80 soldiers will stay at food charities across the state, a decrease from about 300, said Jeff Lowry, a spokesman for the Indiana National Guard.
Gov. Eric Holcomb had directed soldiers to assist food banks and pantries as the need for food increased during the pandemic while the number of volunteers dwindled.
Their departure comes two months after President Donald Trump’s administration announced that most states, with the exception of Florida and Texas, will have to pay 25% of the cost of Guard forces for the rest of the year. The federal government previously completely funded National Guard soldiers deployed across the country for pandemic assistance.
“The soldiers are supplementing the new and returning volunteers and ensuring a smooth transition back to volunteer service, which was the eventual goal from the start of the Guard’s temporary food bank mission,” Lowry said in a statement.
Gleaners, the largest food bank in Indiana, will go from having about 55 soldiers supporting their work to five soldiers on Saturday, said John Elliott, the president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. Those five will be working at the food bank until mid-December, he said.
Gleaners is making up the difference by hiring temporary workers, which is expensive, he said. The food bank also can call employees away from other duties to help with the work the soldiers have been doing, but that’s not ideal.
“Our very last resort, when everything else has been tried, is to reduce food distribution, but we are optimistic that enough volunteers will return to avoid that outcome,” he said.
Similarly, the Midwest Food Bank will see the number of soldiers helping there drop from about 30 to eight, said John Whitaker, its executive director. He said the food bank started recruiting volunteers to fill the gap three weeks ago and is at about 90% of the volunteer workforce it needs. However, the food bank still needs skilled workers who can drive trucks and operate fork lifts, jobs the Guard soldiers have been doing, he said.
Whittaker said he has told volunteers who have underlying health issues to stay at home, but he welcomes older adults who are healthy.
One of the major problems shifting to volunteers is that they are usually older adults who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, said Emily Bryant, the executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, an association of food banks in the state.
“They’re old retired folks, and we want to keep them safe,” she said.
On Tuesday, the last day that Guard soldiers distributed food at Old Bethel and Partners food pantry, people lined up early in the morning to pick up vegetables and carts of bread, snacks and meats.
Some people in line were laid off or retired and on Social Security, their limited income stretched even thinner by the pandemic. Some have visited the food bank all three days of the week that it has been open.
“It’s been hard. No money. No food. It’s hard to keep going,” said Tammy Lane, 61, an Indianapolis resident who visited the Old Bethel and Partners food pantry Tuesday.
“With the pandemic, you’ll learn to appreciate whatever help you can get.”
HOW TO HELP
Those interested in volunteering at Old Bethel and Partners food pantry should email Arin Schellenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People interested in volunteering elsewhere can fill out a form at OperationFood.In.Gov, and they will be assigned a food bank near them.
People also can find places to volunteer by visiting www.indyhunger.org/volunteer-with-our-partners/
Contact IndyStar business reporter Binghui Huang at 317-385-1595. Follow her on Twitter @Bhuang2012.
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