Gleaners fights to feed Indiana's poor

Fran Quigley

Pam Altmeyer of Gleaners Food Bank stands in space normally filled with food in the warehouse.

Pam Altmeyer walks through the production area of Gleaners Food Bank's 83,000-square-foot warehouse, saying hello to volunteers who are sorting boxes of macaroni and cheese, canned tuna and bananas. She opens the door to another room, where staff members are filling enormous boxes of assorted canned goods, cereal and chips that are headed for the near Southside St. Vincent de Paul Client Choice Food Pantry.

United Nations World Food Program Director Jim Morris lists Altmeyer, the president of Gleaners, as a personal hero. Not bad coming from a man who has rubbed shoulders with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela. But Altmeyer's tour through the warehouse today is a little more heroic than she would like - a canoeing injury has her limping painfully along the concrete aisles between 10-foot-high pallets of bagged rice and biscuit mix. Gleaners, too, has a slight limp in its gait these days.

The food bank has distributed 3 million pounds less in 2005 than in the previous fiscal year, even as they see the need for food charity increasing. "Part of the reason for the reduced amount is that some donations were diverted to hurricane relief, part of it is a cut in USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] distributions and part of it is that for 25 years we've been telling food manufacturers what their packaging problems are, so they are more efficient now," Altmeyer says.

In those 25 years, Gleaners has also grown more efficient, and much larger. The food bank, which began in 1980 in a three-car garage on West 10th Street, now puts out 17 million pounds of food each year from this sprawling warehouse. Wheat Thins, green beans and hundreds of other items are distributed by more than 300 daycare centers, food pantries and soup kitchens, as well as through Gleaners-operated mobile pantries, after-school programs and a senior food program.

Altmeyer stops to talk with Robert Rias, a Gleaners staff member who coordinates teams of volunteers assembling 40-pound boxes for distribution to seniors. Rias stands next to a sample of the goods slated to be included in this month's boxes: evaporated milk, spaghetti, a box of Crispix cereal, some fruit juice, a recipe for skillet chili-mac and a dozen other items.

Choosing between food and medicine

Five thousand low-income seniors receive a box each month, including an 80-year-old woman named Martha. After the bus route near her home was cancelled, Martha called repeatedly to confirm that the monthly food box delivery would be made on exactly the date planned. One month, Gleaners staffer Penny Van Arsdale personally delivered Martha's box to her tiny apartment and discovered that Martha was using this Gleaners delivery, intended to be a supplement only, as her entire monthly food intake. It turns out that Martha has severe arthritis, several expensive prescriptions and a fixed income. Martha could afford to buy either food or medicine - not both.

Altmeyer now laboriously climbs the stairs above the warehouse to her office, where she outlines what Gleaners is up against. "There are a hundred more charities in our area distributing food than there was just a few years ago, and Indiana has an increase in the number of people living below the poverty level," she says. Altmeyer prints out a spreadsheet with Gleaners' donations and distributions, and digs out data from the Food Research and Action Center, showing that nearly one in eight Hoosier children lives below the poverty level. Even a mild lack of nutrition during growth periods can affect a child's brain development.

The snow has started to fall heavily outside, and Altmeyer shrugs off the thought of standing up for five hours during tomorrow morning's food drive at Monument Circle with Sen. Lugar. (The weekend efforts by Lugar and Emmis Communications would yield 38,000 pounds of food and $16,000 in donations.) Why should we be concerned about hungry people during the holidays, she is asked.

Altmeyer's look turns serious, and she leans over the desk. "Because they could be us," she says. "They could be me or they could be you. They could he our mothers or our dads or our brothers or our sisters. And our community is weaker if any of our neighbors lack the food needed for a safe and productive life."

To contribute to Gleaners Food Bank, go to www.gleaners.org or call 317-925-0191, or 1-800-944-9166.

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