GREENFIELD — The line of kids 18 and younger forming every weekday for a free, hot lunch at the Patricia Elmore Center is as good an indication as any about the state of hunger in the county.
For the third year, the Hancock County Hunger Summit will aim to address it, as a previous summit did in helping establish the Summer Meals for Kids program, which kicked off last year. In 2013, the program served roughly 1,000 meals. This summer, more children are showing up. The program is open to anyone, but advocates say it’s a good barometer of need in the community.
“Our numbers are up a little bit above last year,” said Jeannie Roberts, volunteer coordinator for United Way of Central Indiana’s Hancock County area. “And we have a lot of returning families, regulars that come five days a week, and we’ve seen some new families come.”
The Summer Meals for Kids program is a second-year collaboration by Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis, United Way, Hancock Regional Hospital, the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department and a host of volunteers from throughout the county that gets lunches to kids when they’re out of school for the summer.
The program is just one of the hunger summit’s concepts that came to fruition, bringing a plate full of real-world outcome to an ongoing problem.
“Things are improving with the economy, but the need is the same,” said Paula Jarrett, Hancock County area director for United Way of Central Indiana.
More than 2,500 of the county’s 8,500 students below high school level – 29.7 percent – participated in free or reduced-price lunch programs for 2013-14, according to United Way figures. That means nearly a third of schoolchildren are considered at risk of going hungry.
“The lines are still long, and the numbers are comparable to last year’s numbers,” Jarrett said of the summer program.
Equally important as addressing the need for food is meeting the need for local groups to come together to collaborate and come up with strategies, summit organizers say.
“We want to create a place where we can have a conversation about hunger, brainstorm and create energy and excitement,” said Steve Vail, executive director of Hancock Hope House, who will act as the summit’s facilitator.
Now in its third year, the summit is careful not to be too aggressive in addressing the issue.
“We didn’t want to take on too much,” Vail said. “We want to make incremental improvements.”
One of those improvements is a collaboration between the Hancock County Food Pantry and Hancock County Senior Services to help seniors – the other prime food-insecure demographic in addition to school-aged children.
The food pantry handles qualification, certification and record-keeping for the federally funded Commodity Supplemental Food Program that supplies 40-pound boxes of food to qualifying seniors. Senior Services delivers the boxes once a month, said Linda Hart, executive director of the nonprofit agency.
Through the summit, a variety of groups can approach and attack a singular problem armed with a multiple set of resources, Hart said.
Currently, some 30 representatives from a number of organizations have signed up for the summit, but Jarrett also hopes to see a strong turnout from local corporations and businesses, which have historically provided a strong base of volunteer support, she said.
“I’d like to see more corporate-world interest come to the table and be willing to learn more about the issue and how to help,” Jarrett said.
“It’s about combining efforts,” Jarrett said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as a good idea. Sometimes it’s as complex as many organizations coming together to start a program.”
“The other piece,” said Jill Carr, Hancock Regional Hospital nutritional services team leader, “is to get together to share what’s been done in the past year.”
One such new initiative is a pilot program from the Hancock County Food Pantry that will put food in the backpacks of qualifying Eastern Hancock Middle and Elementary school students when they leave school for the weekend. A similar program has had success in Greenfield-Central schools.
“There are a lot of good things happening out there,” Carr said.
As volunteers from the Sam’s Club Distribution Center in Greenfield passed out milk and food Tuesday for the Summer Meals for Kids program, Roberts said the wiggling line of kids that passes through daily fairly sums up the story of hunger in the county.
“It cuts across the whole social demographic,” she said. “It tells a tale.”