GREENFIELD — Hancock County Hunger Summit III added another weapon to the ongoing fight against hunger in the community Tuesday with a proposal to explore a year-round coalition to address the issue.
About 40 of the county’s key players on hunger issues convened Tuesday at Hancock Regional Hospital to share victories and brainstorm new fronts to attack. This was the third summit on hunger in Hancock County, sponsored by United Way of Central Indiana and Hancock Regional Hospital.
Foremost among the ideas that evolved from the summit was an initiative to form a group that can keep the issue on people’s minds in Hancock County.
“We had a proposal to form an exploratory group to look at the purpose, the structure and who the partners should be to form a platform for networking, collaboration and education,” said Paula Jarrett, Hancock County Area Director at United Way of Central Indiana. “That’s a powerful combination in the effort to fight hunger.
“This has the potential to be a group that can take the good ideas that come out of the summit and run with them,” Jarrett said.
In addition to anecdotal evidence from summit participants on increased levels of service to a variety of demographics, hard numbers also suggest that food insecurity remains a lingering issue.
According to the latest 2012 research compiled by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic food relief network, nearly 8,000 county residents – 11.3 percent of the population – struggled with food insecurity.
Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the sporadic lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
Statistics from United Way, compiled by the Polis Center at IUPUI, show the number of students participating in free and reduced-price lunch programs in Hancock County increased almost 32 percent from 2009 to 2013, and the county’s poverty rate rose almost 24 percent from 2009 to 2011.
Several trends emerged from the meeting that included ongoing collaboration among a variety of agencies and efforts ranging from faith-based groups to food pantries.
The Summer Meals program, which served free hot lunches to children 18 and under, handed out more than 1,100 meals in June and July, a 20 percent increase over last year’s initial effort, said Jeannie Roberts, volunteer coordinator for United Way of Central Indiana’s Hancock County area.
In addition to the meals, the collaborative program among United Way, Hancock Regional Hospital, Gleaners Food Bank and the city parks department also brought in a number of other local organizations to educate families about available support services in the area.
“I felt like we were extending services that families here need,” Roberts said.
Other joint enterprises established a new food pantry out of Mt. Vernon High School to serve families in that district; a weekend food program that will get shelf-stable food to qualifying kids in the Eastern Hancock school district; and collaboration between Hancock County Senior Services and the Hancock County Food Pantry that gets food boxes to seniors who need it.
“There are so many different entities working together that it’s really exciting,” said Linda Hart, executive director of Senior Services.
The fact that all four of Gleaners’ hunger relief programs are engaged in the county is a testament to the need and the willingness to engage the challenge, leaders say.
“The only county of our 21-county service area that has every program we provide is Hancock County,” said Gleaners program manager Eddie Oliver.
“That speaks very highly of the level of local support that we have and the level of local collaboration.”