HANCOCK COUNTY — The number of households served each month by the Hancock County Food Pantry has dropped to its lowest point in six years.
Local service providers point to the county’s falling jobless rate as an indicator fewer people are looking to the facility to fill the gaps while out of work. Hancock County’s unemployment rate is now at 2.2 percent, the lowest since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2014 saw the most visits to the food pantry at 741 S. State St. in the past decade, with some 660 families per month coming to the facility for help to feed their families. At that time, the state unemployment rate was between 4 and 6 percent, records show. The average number of households served monthly has dropped by more than 100 since then, to 528 households per month, officials said.
Across town at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, organizers said their foot traffic has remained steady at between 100 and 120 meals served daily, though that doesn’t surprise executive director Jill Ebbert.
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She said those seeking meals at the kitchen usually come from one of two groups: those with jobs whose income is too low to make ends meet or those who are unable to work because of illness. Soup kitchen clients are not asked their income level.
Organizers of the volunteer-run pantry, which clients may visit once per month, say now is the time to focus on the future — when they expect their numbers to creep back up with the aging Baby Boomer generation.
In the past decade, the number of families served has ebbed and flowed roughly with the state unemployment rate, said pantry president Tom Ferguson. But client households including people age 65 and older has steadily risen, from about 16 percent of the client base in 2008 to as high as nearly 30 percent in 2014, records show.
So far this year, about one in every four families includes someone 65 or older, Ferguson said.
And that will only compound as the Baby Boomer generation ages, Ferguson said.
Pantry volunteers are preparing now, working with Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana to offer more mobile food pantries at locations around the county, including stops in Greenfield and Fortville. The food pantry currently sponsors three stops per month, and officials are seeking more locations, especially those that will allow people to line up indoors, Ferguson said.
One of those pop-up locations, offered the second Tuesday of every month, is targeted toward seniors. County residents bring their own bags, and they receive about 10 pounds of food trucked in from Gleaners’ Indianapolis food storage site.
None of it would be possible without the small army of volunteers — some 150 strong — who donate their time to the pantry, Ferguson added.
Tonya Baker, 57, is among them. She said she understands how the pantry’s clients feel, she said — she’s also one of them.
Baker started coming to the food pantry two years ago after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder, and lost her job. Shortly after she began getting extra help from the pantry, she said she decided her disability wouldn’t prevent her from helping out around the shelter.
She now sets up tables and chairs in the waiting area and helps unload shipments of food when they arrive, she said.
“I feel like this is my way of paying it forward,” she said.
It is a community effort to assure the pantry is prepared to provide not only for those who need it now but those who might require the service in the future, Ferguson said. Some of the county’s largest employers are an important part of that force, he added.
Elanco Animal Health sends about 10 volunteers every Monday evening, drawing from a group of about 50 people, said volunteer shift leader Sandy Stephens.
Those who come to the shelter on that evening might be helped by someone from as across the globe, Stephens said. Elanco employs people from around the world, and when they travel to the Greenfield location, they often agree to volunteer.
Paul Holland, an Elanco employee hailing from Australia, has volunteered at the food pantry four times, each time he’s traveled to work at the Greenfield Elanco location.
Monday night, he helped county residents pick out nonperishable food as well as zucchini and apples from local farms.
“It’s a difficult situation for a lot of people to be in, and it’s nice to be able to distract them and help them feel human in a less-than-ideal situation,” he said.
1994: Jack and Sue Goff start a food pantry at Faith United Methodist Church.
1999: The Hancock County Food Pantry moves to 35 E. Pierson St., joining the Hope House homeless shelter.
2007: The food pantry moves to its current location, a 4,000-square-foot former machine shop at 741.5 S. State St.
2017: The pantry serves more than 500 families each month at its permanent facility and partners with Gleaners to also offer mobile pantry stops.
Hancock County Food Pantry leaders have several goals for the coming years, said board president Tom Ferguson.
1. More mobile food pantries: Food pantry officials are reaching out to locations around the county to secure additional sites for mobile food pantries. The county food pantry currently sponsors three monthly visits, including one especially for seniors.
2. More fresh food: Though the food pantry works to provide the most nutritious food possible, leaders hope to work with area farms and orchards to provide more fresh food.
3. More coolers: More grocery-style coolers are needed at the facility to store fresh food, Ferguson said. The pantry is seeking donations of large coolers for the 4,000-square-foot facility.
For more information, contact the pantry at 317-468-0273.