3/24/20 Food Finders Drive-Thru, Ted Sparger

Food Finders Pantry Coordinator Ted Sparger places a bag of potatoes into a box before it is distributed to a family in need. 

Greater Lafayette food pantries have converted to drive-thru formats to combat food insecurity while also practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Food Finders Food Bank’s new system began last week. Hundreds of cars wrapped around Linnwood Elementary School in Lafayette on Tuesday, a block over from Food Finders’ standard location, to wait in line for 30- to 50-pound boxes of refrigerated food. The drive-thru operates on Tuesdays and Fridays, said Director of Operations Jack Warner, who projects it will serve 650 to 700 households each day.

A chorus of impatient honks filled the air Tuesday afternoon, but Warner said he expects most in line to have to wait no longer than 45 minutes to retrieve their food.

“It’s just the start-up that’s the slow part — getting the volunteers here, getting the stuff going,” he said. “Once they get in a routine, these cars are gonna start flying through here.”

The boxes are filled with eggs, potatoes, fresh produce and cuts of meat before being loaded into trunks or back seats of vehicles. The food bank also has a walk-up table, where clients without cars can receive lighter bags of food within minutes.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay-at-home order on Monday barring people from leaving their homes for nonessential functions, starting Wednesday. Food banks are deemed essential because they provide “food, shelter and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals,” according to the order.

The Lafayette Urban Ministries Protein Food Pantry will continue to operate Thursday mornings at the Ray Ewry Center in Lafayette, delivering curbside to-go packages. Clients line up 6 feet apart, according to LUM’s website, and are able to collect proteins, produce and hygiene products.

Purdue’s ACE Campus Food Pantry has reduced hours and shifted to an “ordering at the counter” style, student director Marly Beck said in an email. Gloved volunteers fill bags with food, and the tables used to serve clients are regularly disinfected. Individuals are spaced 6 feet apart in the basement, and the upstairs space is used to hold spillover if lines are lengthy.

Warner said Food Finders will continue to run the drive-thru unless additional regulations are imposed.

“We’ll stay open as long as COVID-19 continues to threaten us and people are in need and not back in work, we’re going to continue to do this,” Warner said. “As long as they let us do it.”

The Food Finders pantry typically operates five days a week out of the basement of its main building. Warner said about 350 households are served each day under normal circumstances. He attributed the uptick in service to hosting fewer days of service and attracting more people who are now out of jobs.

“There are more people laid off right now, possibly, because a lot of factories and restaurants are cutting back on the number of people they have around,” Warner said. “I’m sure we’re getting some of that traffic that we normally wouldn’t get.”

Lafayette residents Diana Carter and Nicole Weaver said they were in line for over an hour and had about five minutes to go. Both live in the same home and have been depending on the Food Finders pantry for about a year. The women said they’re adjusting to the volume of cars clogging traffic.

“Because it’s in a residential area, it makes it difficult,” Carter said. “People on side streets are cutting into the line, which we’ve already waited an hour in.”

Weaver said she works at a hotel, which qualifies as an essential business, but a drop in business has cut her 40 hours a week in half. She picked up a box last week and said it lasted her about four days feeding four people. Both women agreed the quantity and quality of food exceed expectations.

The tightly packed lines of vehicles stopped and started frequently. One woman, who asked not to be named, was with her son in a Buick van with engine difficulties. She prevented it from overheating by turning off and restarting the ignition each time she stopped.

“I’m just as frustrated as they are, but I have to be here,” she said, her son hanging out the passenger side window while drivers behind her honked. “It was either this or do without, and I can’t do that.”

Food Finders CEO Katy Bunder said at last week’s drive-thru, she saw two men in a run-down car who worried they would run out of gas before making it home. She said she’s gotten calls from a woman sick at home who exhausted her food supply and cannot leave the house to pick up more.

But there are also people suffering from the same anxiety as grocery-store shoppers who have been worried since the onset of the pandemic. These individuals, she said, have food at home but lack money to feel secure they won’t be deprived during shortages.

“Low-income people want exactly the same things as high-income people want,” Bunder said. “Where high-income people are cleaning out the grocery stores, low-income people are trying to get all the food they possibly can from the food pantries.

“Everyone is so worried there’s not going to be any food tomorrow, so they better get all the food they can today.”

The food bank supplies product to LUM’s and ACE’s food pantries, according to Bunder. It acts as “warehouse and distribution for charity food,” she said, storing inventory and distributing goods to 16 counties throughout North Central Indiana. Its reach extends to more than 100 pantries in total.

Bunder said grocery stores are the primary donors to Food Finders. But as consumers — worried about the possibility of being stuck at home with a sparse food supply — have rummaged aisles, excess inventory has evaporated and so have donations.

“Grocery stores aren’t donating food to us because they just don’t have it,” Bunder said.

The organization is now relying on stockpiles left over from farm surpluses built during the trade war with China and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, an operation run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But as those reserves deplete, Bunder said the food bank will increasingly rely on private donations.

“It’s always better to donate money because we can buy food in bulk for a lot cheaper,” she added. “We buy food by the truckload and we can get a much better price than if an individual goes and buys food.”

The coronavirus outbreak has shuttered nonessential businesses and drastically increased the number of people working from home. Though the food bank remains open because of its crucial role in the community, Bunder said many of her 30 employees would prefer to work remotely and avoid potential illness.

But packing boxes with food and handing them out can’t be replicated from home. This week, Bunder said her staff will start to work intermittent shifts so that if someone is exposed to COVID-19, the food bank does not have to temporarily close.

Last week, 50 volunteers were allowed in the warehouse at a time, but new recommendations from the federal government have lowered that number to 10. One of the many contingencies Food Finders has planned for is when volunteers are unable or unwilling to leave their homes to help.

“If our staff is all ill, I’ve asked for 20 National Guard members to come and help,” Bunder said. “But I’m not sure food banks are high enough on the list yet. I think right now hospitals are getting those National Guard members to come.”

Alexis Leming, a junior at McCutcheon High School, said she volunteered four hours Tuesday and 10 total hours in the past week. She’s been washing her hands vigorously, wearing disposable gloves and using hand sanitizer, but she said the only thing that could keep her home is if she became ill.

“I’d rather help people than live at home in fear of getting sick,” Leming said. “If I did get sick, I’d want to remember it happened while I was helping people.”

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