For the past six months, the Indiana National Guard has been deployed at food banks across the state to meet the heightened need for food assistance because of COVID-19 and its economic effects.
But with the Guard’s deployment set to end Sept. 30, food banks and pantries are in desperate need of volunteers.
Gov. Eric Holcomb highlighted the need for volunteers during his Wednesday COVID-19 press conference and said food banks are taking proper precautions for volunteers’ safe return.
“We would ask if you were giving up your time and talent and treasure in the past to food banks, we would ask that you make contact and look to return there as well,” Holcomb said.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration is working with Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, a nonprofit organization partnered with 11 food banks across the state, to raise awareness about the need for volunteers following the National Guard’s departure.
According to a joint release from the two organizations, people interested in volunteering can visit OperationFood.IN.gov, and they will be contacted by their regional food bank.
“We want to make sure we have volunteers coming back to the food banks,” said Emily Weikert Bryant, Feeding Indiana’s Hungry executive director.
The Guard’s deployment allowed for a more regular, work week-like model and consistent coronavirus protocol when it came to PPE and scheduling, Weikert Bryant said.
Now, however, Feeding Indiana’s Hungry and its partner organizations have to put in additional efforts to bring back the volunteer power.
Many volunteers tend to be older, which puts them at a higher risk for COVID-19, according to FSSA and Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, so banks and pantries are also trying to convince people who might not have been involved before to give their time.
Weikert Bryant said she has signed up to volunteer at a food pantry near her house for the first time in six months, and she’s excited to be able to serve again. She hopes other volunteers will find the same fulfillment in the work.
“It’s an important aspect of community and being able to help those around them,” Weikert Bryant said.
Sarah Estell, communications director for Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, said the food bank has just started ramping up its messaging again to bring back volunteers.
To keep up with demand, Gleaners needs 60 volunteers, split up into two 30-person shifts, during its Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday distribution days. Not hitting that number means they might not get every client through the distribution line during operating hours.
“It will be a real test for us when the Guard is completely gone,” Estell said.
Gleaners, a Feeding Indiana’s Hungry partner in Indianapolis,served about 300 to 500 households each pickup day before the pandemic, but Estell said the average now is around 1,300 to 1,500 households. At the height, Gleaners was serving as many as 2,000 households per day.
“It’s very busy,” Estell said. “Need is high, and this is going to be an ongoing need for quite some time.”
Estell said volunteers will work in the warehouse, mainly greeting clients as they come through the drive through line and helping put prepackaged food boxes in cars.
Gleaners is only allowing volunteers 18 or older to come back for the time being. Everyone is required to wear a mask and gloves and have their temperature taken upon arrival, and Estell said Gleaners’ distribution setup allows volunteers to maintain social distancing as well.
Volunteers can sign up through the Gleaners website. Tuesday and Wednesday shifts run 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday shifts are 1:30 to 4:45 p.m. and 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
“They can sign up one shift and see how they like it, and hopefully they can come back and want to do another shift,” Estell said. “I think a lot of people are looking for something tangible to help, and it’s a good way to actually make a direct impact for families in need.”
Treva Burgess, group volunteer manager for Gleaners, said she’s seen clients lining up a few hours before distribution even begins. Without enough volunteers, the food bank would have to go down to one distribution line and slow its entire operations.
“There’s only so much we can do with so many people,” Burgess said. “If we can be fully staffed every day, we’re gonna have a better success of serving everyone in line.”
Burgess said the food bank is also trying to find ways for people to help without coming in, such as virtual food and fund drives for corporate groups or influencer-type roles on social media where people can share information about Gleaners online.
Burgess said the issue reaches beyond just Gleaners, and it’s important for people to help however they can no matter where they are in the state.
“If you live outside of that Central Indiana region,” Burgess said, “reach out to your local food banks and food pantries and whatnot and find out what kind of help they need.”
Contact Pulliam Fellow Lydia Gerike at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @LydiaGerike.