As the staff at Gleaners Food Bank often say, "hunger never takes a holiday." The holidays, of course, are still the holidays, and the seasonal spirit is responsible for bringing in outsized portions of volunteer hours and donations of service, food and cash.
Several companies, community organizations and individuals, including NUVO, World Wrestling Entertainment and Eli Lilly, donate time. On a recent afternoon, several popular IndyCar drivers volunteered to sort incoming food donations and pack weekend "BackSacks" full of food for school-age children to take home as weekend supply. Up to 10,000 children utilize this service each week.
IndyCar Driver Charlie Kimball (who, later that evening, won the Tony Renna Rising Star Award at IndyCar's annual Championship Celebration) explained how the take-home backpacks of food help families, "so that it's not an additional financial hardship on their family to feed them over the weekend, so they can stay in school longer.
"The longer they stay in school, the better they can contribute back and re-feed the system."
While cash and food donations will always be important, the mutual gift service through volunteer work provides those who donate is a face-to-face look at hunger and poverty — a perennial, ongoing, all-but-insurmountable challenge of our modern world.
According to Gleaners, more than 300,000 impoverished Hoosiers live in its 21-county service area, which stretches across central and southeastern Indiana. A third of these people are children. Statewide, a quarter of Indiana's children live with hunger.
"Last fiscal year, we served 16 million meals. We're definitely working hard to feed people," Carrie Fulbright, Gleaners' director of external affairs, said while hosting visitors to the warehouse on a December afternoon. "Last year, we distributed over 20 million pounds of food."
"Right now, there are more than 100,000 children here in Indiana, living in poverty," Fulbright said.
"We're seeing a lot of families who are employed but who are underemployed. They've had to take pay cuts, or they've taken lower-paying jobs. So, while they're still working, they're still not able to meet the needs of their family."
Statistics correlate underemployment with food insecurity. In Gleaner's service area, a recent Feeding America analysis found 311,290 food insecure people — equivalent to 15 percent of the population. Of these, 118,800 were children. The children's food insecurity rate was 22 percent — more than one out of every five.
Feeding America, formerly America's Second Harvest, first published its Map The Meal Gap project in early 2011 to learn more about the face of hunger at the local level. Gleaner's website — gleaners.org — links to the project and features interactive maps about local and national food insecurity issues.
Feeding America reports that for 1 in 6 people in the United States, hunger is a reality.That's 50 million Americans living with hunger and food insecurity, which exists in every county in the country.The number of individuals seeking emergency food assistance is up 46% since 2005.
"We're here to give not only food for the stomach," Fulbright said, "but hope, as well."
Fulbright underscored that there is no shame in visiting the food bank. "If you or someone you know is in need, call 211," Fulbright said, explaining that it is a free hunger hotline service to help connect people in need to resources, such as food and energy assistance, in their communities.
Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, Inc. was founded in a three-and-a-half-car garage in 1980 with a mission to lead the fight against hunger and serve Indiana's hungry "until every bowl is filled." Gleaners secures and stores food and grocery items for redistribution to more than 350 hunger relief agencies that serve Indiana's hungry.
Kimball, who races on the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi team, "Gleaners Food Bank does so much É in the offseason, when we're not racing at 200 miles an hour, it's nice to be able to slow down and make sure that we give back."
His racing colleague Simona de Silvestro, a driver for KV Racing Technology, agreed.
"It's a lot of fun to give back to the community," she said. "They do this job 365 days a year and we come in and help for a few hours."
Peter Dempsey of Belardi Racing also called the volunteer experience "fun," noting "it was a lot of boxes — we appreciate the amount of effort people put in down here, it's a lot of work."
More than 400 companies and organizations donate food and critical grocery items, ranging from meat, fresh produce, dairy products, and frozen foods to canned vegetables, cereals, personal care products and diapers.
Since its inception, Gleaners has provided over 300 million pounds of food to hunger relief agencies.That's the equivalent of 230 million meals to Hoosiers in need.
Al Green is one of those Hoosiers. Now he runs volunteer crews at Gleaners and can say with authority that a regular crew of ladies from a local Missionary Baptist church are the most efficient crew he encounters as he guides the well-meaning masses who come in to donate a few hours.
"I really enjoy this work," Green said. "It's marvelous. I'm really blessed to have a job like this. Although I'm getting paid, I was in a position where I received this food. Now, I get the opportunity now to give back."
People interested in getting in on the action out at Gleaners can visit gleaners.org or call (317) 925-0191 ext. 144. for more information.
The website also features materials to download to assist with outreach efforts, learn about organizing a food drive and access a map of donation drop-off sites. You can also share the link to Gleaners' homepage in your Facebook news feed.
Donations may be dropped off directly to Gleaners' southwest side warehouse at 3737 Waldemere Avenue, Indianapolis 46241.
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