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By Peter Zubler, Executive Director

When 2020 began, we could never have imagined how the needs of our food pantry would increase. At the start of the year, we were serving about 3,000 families and another 350 homebound individuals weekly. At the height of COVID-19, those numbers rose about 20 percent—a dramatic increase that has leveled off some, though we expect numbers to rise again in the winter months.

God’s Provisions
As I reflect on the year, I’m in awe of how our staff and volunteers adapted—as well as how God put provisions in place before we even knew how much we’d need them. For starters, in October 2019, we added a commercial-size refrigeration room thanks to a generous donation from St. Vincent Ascension. It was part of our efforts to provide more nutritious food options. Produce is at the heart of those healthier options, so a larger refrigeration room allows us to keep produce and other perishables fresher for longer periods of time. Additionally, thanks to one generous donor, we now have a commercial freezer to give us more capacity—this allows us to leverage our food budget with volume buying and bargain purchases. Those two additions served us greatly as COVID hit. Not only did we have record-high numbers coming to our pantry, we were forced to change the way we operated.

Move to Drive-Thru Format
Early last spring, when Indiana went on lockdown, we transitioned from a typical food pantry that people walked through, to a drive-thru pushing distribution outdoors. We were concerned about losing the opportunity to directly interact with our neighbors in the way we were accustomed, but we needed to make a change to protect the health and safety of staff, volunteers and clients—particularly in the midst of so much unknown in the early months of COVID.

Despite the fact that our neighbors could no longer shop and choose their groceries during the pandemic, our staff and volunteers worked hard to continue to provide a variety of nutritious foods to our neighbors in need. Staff and volunteers sorted, packed and stored food boxes (full of dairy, produce, meats, etc.) in the refrigeration room until pick-up. And, surprisingly, we’ve found that people actually like our new process. It was born out of need but it’s provided a level of efficiency that everyone involved appreciates.

Lending a Hand
Another way we adapted was with our volunteers. Understandably, the number of volunteers decreased dramatically as many quarantined in order to protect their health. Thankfully, the Indiana National Guard stepped in and served us faithfully for six months. We truly would not have been able to maintain food pantry operations without their support.

After the National Guard’s deployment ended, we wondered again how we’d maintain operations. Yet, once again, God provided new groups coming in and serving weekly. One such example is the students in the Work Study Program at Providence Cristo Rey High School. We have about 35 students—freshmen through seniors—volunteering each week. The students have jumped right in and are performing every job at the food pantry, including making boxes, packing them and loading them into the cars of our clients. Whatever needs to be done, this group of young adults doesn’t hesitate to jump in and lend a hand.

(Left photo – Providence seniors: Back row left to right: Malcolm Chandler, Miguel Munoz. Hector Martinez; front row left to right: Jah-Laie Minter, Iesha Collins / Right photo – Providence sophomores: Back row left to right: Brian Uribe, Yahir Jimenez, Jermiah Mallory; front row left to right: Gabby Smith, Karina Ramos)

Another faithful group of volunteers we’re really appreciative of are from St. Mark’s. They volunteered as sorters at the pantry prior to the onset of COVID. But as our needs increased and the number of people to do the job decreased, they increased their commitment. A core group of volunteers often come to the pantry five days every week to sort and distribute food for us. They are tireless in their efforts and they love SVdP—and we love them, too. In fact, St. Mark’s was the first group to win one of our volunteer awards, which is usually given to individuals.

Getting Ready for Cold Temps
Changing and adapting how we operate the food pantry continues as we prepare for the colder months ahead. We still have a need to keep food distribution outside of our pantry, but we want to keep our volunteers safe—and warm—as winter weather sets in. Earlier this fall, we installed two overhead doors. So, beginning in December, we will route cars past these overhead doors. While our volunteers are still outside when they load boxes into cars, they have the option to quickly step back inside to warm up.

Key Ways to Help
If I’ve been reminded of anything during this past year, it is that God provides and that, in times of crisis, we need to get creative. And we did that indeed.

If you can help us this year, we would appreciate it. There are many ways that you can help but here are two important ones: