GREENFIELD — As heavy rain fell outside, Dakota Simmermeyer took a seat at the table by the window. It was fried chicken on the menu Wednesday night, with salad and vegetables.

You won’t hear complaints at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen about what’s being served; a hot meal goes a long way for families who can’t afford to stock their cupboards.

The soup kitchen’s tables filled quickly with other families. Some stayed a while, making small talk with each other well after their meal was finished; others ate and were on their way.

Dinner is something different each day but always filling, Simmermeyer said. Those who work there are warm and welcoming, he continued, happy to listen as patrons share about their days and quick to offer a helping hand if they need more than a warm meal.

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Several organizations work hard every day to keep the bellies of needy families full. But despite their best efforts, they said the need is on the rise in Hancock County.

The number of meals served at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen grew by 11 percent from 2013-14, with about 80 meals served at each daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Roughly 213,000 meals have been served there since the organization opened its doors in 2009.

The Hancock County Food Pantry is looking to expand programming aimed at providing weekend meals for needy children, citing concerns that too many local children go without food when they are not at school.

The number of local children on the free and reduced-price school lunch program, an indicator of poverty in area communities, hovers around 25 percent each year countywide, but an increase in enrollment from 2013 to 2014 brought 340 additional children who were in need.

Families are able to visit the food pantry once a month. In an effort to keep children from becoming distracted at school because they’re hungry, the food pantry works with Gleaners to offer BackSacks — weekend packages of food. Currently, 187 local students participate in the program, which costs about $37,400 annually.

‘they’re saints’

The efforts of local organizations to fill the gaps is a blessing to those in need, Simmermeyer said.

“I’m not sure who donates all this food, but they’re saints,” he said. “Everyone here is happy to help you, and it’s a great place for people on a tight budget.”

Jim Hahn, vice president of the soup kitchen’s board of directors, said it’s difficult to watch entire families visit the kitchen to eat a meal together.

“Mom and Dad are working, but they still can’t make ends meet, so they are here for dinner, and they are getting their groceries from the food pantry,” Hahn said. “When it comes down to paying the light bill or going grocery shopping, which one are you going to choose?”

People are often surprised to hear how busy the soup kitchen is, Hahn said, because most community members don’t realize how big a problem hunger is in Hancock County.

Kids who are hungry at home are often hungry at school, officials said. To alleviate that, schools across the country are required to offer children from low-income households free or reduced-priced lunches at school.

Terry Miller, school social worker for Weston Elementary School, said lunch assistance program participants in the Greenfield-Central district have hovered around 30 percent for the past few years. This year, the district sits at about 34 percent of students utilizing the program.

Every family receives an application for the program when they enroll their child in school each year, Miller said. To qualify, a family must meet federal guidelines based on income and the number of people living in the home.

reaching out

Miller said hungry children are easiest to identify during snack and lunchtime. Children who aren’t getting enough food at home will ask for seconds or thirds or take more than others in order to have leftovers to take home.

It’s obvious to teachers and school social workers which kids are coming to school hungry, Miller said, but it is a parent’s responsibility to apply for the program.

Sometimes, Miller steps in to connect families to organizations and programs in the community that can help.

The BackSack program is one option.

Gleaners provides sacks filled with food commonly found in school lunchboxes. The food pantry helps underwrite some of the costs associated with the program and delivers the sacks to participating schools once a month.

Currently, the program is offered to students at Eastern Hancock, Fortville, Eden, Harris, J.B. Stephens and Weston elementary schools and Maxwell and Greenfield intermediate schools.

Organizers said that’s a start, but it’s not enough. They are looking to raise an additional $17,000 per year to expand the program to serve students at McCordsville, Mt. Comfort, New Palestine, Brandywine and Sugar Creek elementary schools.

“Our goal is to have every elementary school in the county participate in the BackSack program,” said Tom Ferguson, president of the food pantry’s board of directors.

The goal of the program is to help enhance students’ lives, futures and educations. Students who come to school hungry typically don’t perform as well as other students because they’re distracted by their grumbling stomachs, Ferguson said.

“There’s strong evidence that children that are hungry over the weekend come to school Monday more concerned about their bellies than they are about learning,” he said.

‘grow and graduate’

At each school, the program is handled sensitively so students don’t know who receives the sacks. The schools’ staffs work together to identify which students would benefit from the program based on whether or not hunger behaviors are observed at school.

The soup kitchen also recently began offering its patrons bags of food to take home on the weekends.

Hahn said they will often package up leftovers, extra canned foods or other donated items to keep families fed in the time between when the kitchen closes on Friday evening and opens again Monday morning.

The most gratifying part of his involvement with the soup kitchen is watching people “grow and graduate” out of their toughest times, Hahn said.

“We just want to see people move forward,” Hahn said. “But they know we’re here to feed them (when they need help).”

How you can help

The Hancock County Food Pantry is looking to expand its BackSack program, which currently benefits nearly 200 students throughout Hancock County.

The program sends needy students home with food on Friday to provide them something to eat during the weekend.

This year, 187 Hancock County students receive weekly allocations, which cost $37,400 annually.

Eastern Hancock, Fortville, Eden, Harris, J.B. Stephens and Weston elementary schools and Maxwell and Greenfield intermediate schools participate.

The food pantry wants to expand the program at the rest of the county’s elementary schools. An effort that’s expected to cost an approximately $17,000 more each year.

To donate, contact Tom Ferguson at 317-468-0273.

Leap of Faith

The Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen will host the fourth annual Leap of Faith dinner and auction today at Brandywine Community Church, 1551 E. New Road in Greenfield.

This annual dinner and auction is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year. Funds collected will be used to cover overhead, utilities and other expenses associated with operating the soup kitchen, 202 E. Main St. in Greenfield.

Tickets are $35 per person and can be purchased at the door. Doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner to be served at 6:30 p.m.

Call 317-462-9900 or email kbmskinc@myninestar.net for more information.

Pull Quote

“It’s all a blessing. I’m not sure who donates all this food, but they’re saints. Everyone here is happy to help you, and it’s a great place for people on a tight budget.”

Dakota Simmermeyer of Greenfield, Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen patron

Pull Quote

“When it comes down to paying the light bill or going grocery shopping, which one are you going to choose?”

John Hahn, vice president of the board of directors, Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen

Pull Quote

“There’s strong evidence that children that are hungry over the weekend come to school Monday more concerned about their bellies than they are about learning.”

Tom Ferguson, president of the Hancock County Food Pantry board of directors

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.