Horn of Unplenty
It’s hard to believe when you see Fort Wayne’s continued growth, success and vitality that there are people who do not share in the limitless abundance that seems swirling around the city.
Indeed, there are children, adults and seniors who worry about where they will get their next meal and/or how to put food on the table for their families.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food, and there are a significant number of people in Allen County who face the anxiety of not knowing where they will get their next meal.
In 2015, food insecurity affected more than 51,000 Allen County residents which translates to 14.3% of the county’s population, according to the 2018 Vulnerable Populations Study released by St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Purdue University Fort Wayne. And as the years have passed, the numbers only continue to grow.
According to Feeding America, a nationwide hunger relief organization, “hunger and food insecurity are closely related, but distinct, concepts.”
While hunger refers to the physical sensation of discomfort due to lack of food, the term food insecurity means that a person or family lacks the financial resources to purchase food; it can be caused by unemployment, lack of income due to costs associated with housing and childcare or because of health issues. Among the senior population and people with disabilities, the problem can be compounded by lack of mobility and access to good transportation.
Food insecurity can impact everyone from small children to seniors to young adults in college who find campus food plans too expensive to working-adults who have to choose between having a car to get to work and stocking the pantry to seniors who have to choose between purchasing necessary medications or food.
Among Allen County’s 51,000 individuals facing food insecurity, 18,000 are children who regularly go to school or day care hungry.
The Vulnerable Population Study stated that the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that children without adequate access to food get sick more often, recover from illness at a slower rate, have worse overall health and are hospitalized more frequently.
The study also pointed out that food deserts – areas where the poverty rate is 20% or greater or where the median family income is 80% below of the average family income statewide – adds further complications to the issue of food insecurity.
The 2019 federal threshold for poverty is a family of four with an annual income below $25,750 or an annual income below $16,910 for a couple. In addition to living below the poverty level, a food desert is also defined as an area in which people in an urban area are living more than half-mile from a grocery store, or in a rural area living 10 miles away from a grocery store.
According to the study, Allen County has 37 areas that are identified as low-income and where 33% of the population is living far enough away from a grocery store for the area to be considered a food desert.
This means one in three people, nearly 110,000 Allen County residents, reside in a food desert.
So, in this season of celebrating and giving thanks for the limitless abundance and the plentiful bounty, what happens to those who don’t share in the horn of plenty?
While more than half of the county’s food insecure households participate in at least one of the major food assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps; the National School Lunch Program; and the Special Supplement Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), it takes more than these programs to make sure local families are eating enough be healthy and for children to thrive.
According to Candice Hagar, Director of Nutrition Services for Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS), all children in the district receive both breakfast and lunch free of charge.
Hagar said the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals is 68%, but the entire district is on the Community Eligibility Provision, which means that if 40% of the students are eligible for food stamps or Medicaid, are homeless, in foster care or migrant, then all students are eligible to receive free meals.
This also eliminates the concern about the unpaid school unch balances, an issue that recently received national attention.
In addition to feeding children during the school year, the school district is also involved in summer programs that provide its students with places to go to get a proper meal.
In the summer of 2019, the FWCS nutrition center provided nearly 50,000 lunches, more than 35,000 snacks and almost 2,000 breakfasts, said Rhonda Eitsert, nutrition process supervisor for FWCS. The summer meals are provided at five Wellspring Interfaith Youth Summer Day Camps, through the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, eight Allen County Public Library branches and YMCA childcare sites. The district also operates a mobile-meal truck that goes to three city parks.
Mara Honeywell, manager of Youth Services for Allen County Public Library and director of its summer learning program SPARK pointed out that while Fort Wayne’s various summer programs including the efforts made by the library are designed to allow children to continue to learn while not in school, but, if their stomachs are empty, their brains can’t be filled.
“Children who are well-fed also have fewer behavior issues and have better concentration,” said Honeywell.
The summer can be especially difficult for families living near or below the poverty line. “There is the need for extra daycare which is a large expense for families. Even families living above the poverty level who are struggling to make ends meet find this time difficult,” said Honeywell. Plus, when students aren’t in school they aren’t receiving free breakfast and lunch on a daily basis; thus, adding additional expenses that families are unable to meet.
Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation believes that food insecurity has been an issue for far longer than it has had a name, “It is only in the past decade that the medical community has been asking questions about food insecurity, so there is now better tracking of the issue.”
Children are not the only members of the community who are affected by food insecurity. On both the national and local level, colleges have had to open food pantries to help their students. A 2019 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice stated that 45% of the 86,000 students surveyed at both two- and four-year colleges and universities experience food insecurity. While some schools address the problem on a case-by-case basis, others like Purdue Fort Wayne and Ivy Tech Fort Wayne have opened food pantries.
“In 2016, we started a food pantry and have seen a steady increase in the number of students using the resources,” said Ashley Skinner, coordinator of Student Success at Ivy Tech’s Fort Wayne campus.
Senior citizens are among the fastest growing segment of the population who are identified with food insecurities. Especially those living in food deserts, where they not only lack the resources for adequate nutrition, but also the mobility to take advantage of resources.
According to Feeding America’s annual report The State of Senior Hunger in America, food insecurity among seniors, those who are 60 and older, Indiana placed among the states with an average of 5% – 9.9% of its seniors who are food insecure. The report also noted that the current number of food insecure seniors nationwide has more than doubled since 2001.
Melissa Rinehart, executive director of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services, a non-profit organization agreed that the number of seniors facing food insecurity has increased. Since a significant portion of the area Wellspring serves is considered a food desert, it is not unusual for seniors to come to the agency’s food bank pushing a wheelchair to be able to transport home the food they are provided.
Wellspring has started Wellspring On Wheels, a mobile food distribution van that goes to Autumn Woods to serve its residents. Rinehart said Wellspring expects to begin taking its food distribution van also to the Pontiac library branch.
“My eventual goal is to have a food distribution presence in all four quadrants of the city,” said Rinehart.
While innovative programs have appeared in recent years, traditionally, food pantries have been the mainstay of assisting people who are food insecure.
Associated Churches which just marked its 75th anniversary in 2019 operates The Neighborhood Food Network that offers families food once-a-month at no charge through a network of 25 food pantries in churches and social agencies.
Food drives like the area’s annual #UCanCrushHunger helps to gather canned food and non-perishables to help restock the food pantries as they constantly fight against dwindling supplies.
“This time of year, our shelves are pretty empty,” said Mary Carpenter, operations manager at the Community Harvest Food Bank. Autumn is when the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables is coming to an end, but canned goods are in short supply.
In the last few years, Carpenter said the number of senior citizens needing help has exploded, and some of this she attributes to the increasing number of grandparents who are rearing their grandchildren. “When you’re on a fixed income it is especially difficult to have additional mouths to feed,” she said. Community Harvest currently serves 700 clients who are 60 and older and has an extensive waiting list.
In her 14 years at the food bank, Carpenter said she has also seen an increase in number of working poor, those who despite having jobs do not earn enough to pay for all of life’s necessities coming in for assistance. Foodpantries.org
FILLED & FULFILLED
During the school year, Monday through Friday, children in Fort Wayne Community Schools are guaranteed to have a healthy and fulfilling breakfast and lunch. But, for many of these children who come from families who live below the poverty line, weekends mean food insecurity and no guarantee they will even get one nutritious meal.
That’s where Blessing in a Backpack steps in and sends students home when the last school bell rings on Friday afternoons with a backpack filled with nutritious easy-to-prepare meals and healthy snacks.
The program was started in 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky and through both local and national donations, nationwide students receive the food-filled backpacks at school. All of the colorful backpacks are provided by Fort Wayne-based Vera Bradley.
“Last year we donated 25,000 backpacks to the Blessings in a Backpack program. This year we increased that number to 50,000,” said Greg Jaeger, Vera Bradley’s director of public relations and social media. “It’s those 65 hours between Friday night and Monday morning during the school year that we want to make sure children are well-fed.”
While many of those 50,000 backpacks find theirway to children across the country, those that stay in the area are packed with food and goodies by Vera Bradley employees.
A company-wide initiative takes place during the summer to collect school supplies to stuff the backpacks when they are first distributed at the start of the school year to more than 400 children throughout Fort Wayne Community Schools.
In addition, another 5,000 backpacks are distributed through local school districts to children who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals under federal guidelines. Verabradley.com
IMPROVING THE WORLD
About 10 years ago when Jamie Berger and her daughter Jordan were busy sorting food donations at Congregation Achduth Vesholom, they had an epiphany.
Head Start, the federal program that provides free preschool education to families whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level rents classroom space at the temple.
“At the time, one of the Head Start parents came up to me and asked if I noticed that the extra toilet paper rolls were missing. I really hadn’t noticed, but she explained that towards the end of the month when it is likely that the food stamps have run out at the same time as there is a a need for paper products,” said Berger.
She assured the woman that there was no problem and more toilet paper would be supplied. But, after the woman left, Berger’s daughter turned to her and said, “Well, what are we going to do about that?”
Thus, Thoughtful Thursdays was born as a partnership between the Congregation Achduth Vesholom, the former congregants of B’nai Jacob and the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne; it is an outreach effort to provide food to the 72 families whose children are in the Head Start program located on the temple’s campus.
Twice a month, each family receives a recyclable Thoughtful Thursdays shopping bag filled with food and paper goods.
“In the fall when we celebrate, the Jewish New Year, there is a tradition of eating apples dipped in honey to symbolize having a sweet new year,” said Berger. “So, during this time, we put up a paper tree in the synagogue and the money collected is used to purchase bags of honey crisp apples to give to our Head Start families.”
Even 10 years later, Thoughtful Thursdays continues to generate enthusiasm among its congregants who also work throughout the year to assist the families with various collections and drives including one for winter coats, boots and mittens.
It is through Thoughtful Thursdays that the Head Start program and its students and families have become so much more than just tenants; they are part of the temple’s community and its efforts for Tikkun Olam, acts of kindness to help repair the world and to insure a safeguard for those who may be less fortunate. Templecav.org
FROM PLATE TO PLATE
When you go to a special fundraiser or gala, it is easy to notice the abundance of food offered as well as the amount of untouched leftovers when the party is over. It is easy to think there are so many hungry people that the uneaten the food could serve.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted; this means 40% of our food supply finds its way to landfills. So, Jodi Leamon, sustainability coordinator for the Allen County Department of Environmental Management, decided to do something about it.
“Our department is tasked with reducing the amount of waste going to landfills; and food waste in landfills is a particular problem,” she said.
It turns out that the food in landfills decomposes in such a way that it produces methane gas which is emitted into the atmosphere; add to this the number of food insecure people in the country, and Leamon found herself with not only an environmental problem but also a moral dilemma.
Enter Food Rescue US (formerly known as Community Plates), a national initiative that works to get food that would otherwise go to waste into the hands of the people who need it.
Leamon said Allen County’s participation in Food Rescue US began two years ago when community leaders formed the Fort Wayne Food Waste Forum.
Food Rescue serves as a clearing house where food donors are matched with receiving agencies. Then the all-volunteer team helps to transport the fresh and/or prepared but unused food to the receiving organization. “The beauty of this system is that it is completely done by volunteers,” said Leamon.
Larry Graf, a retired Fort Wayne businessman, works with Food Rescue volunteers as well as outreaching to potential 501c3 charitable agencies and organizations about receiving
Food donors include the area’s large event centers including the Grand Wayne Convention Center and Parkview Mirro as well as local restaurants and local agencies that sponsor large one-time special events.
“Sometimes an event may not be able to get a good head count and prepare more food than needed,” said Leamon. In other instances, chain restaurants are on a set delivery schedule from their corporate headquarters and may not need part of a food delivery.
All of this can easily go to an agency that prepares and serves those in the community who need
a good meal.
Leamon said people frequently ask if they can cook or bake for Food Rescue, “Unfortunately we cannot accept home-prepared goods, but if they have a private catered-event, we can definitely pick up the unused food. All it takes is someone to reach out and let us know what food is available.”
Allen County’s food rescue program is in need of donors, recipient agencies and volunteers. Foodrescueus.com