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Group Seeks to Repurpose Food


by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, April 19, 2024

A steady stream of cars worked through a line that snaked out of the parking lot of the Community Food Pantry of St. Joseph County (Ind.) in South Bend and wrapped around down the street last Friday. Roughly 25 cars waited for their turn to pick up a load of groceries, and the line remained steady between 10-11 a.m. The pantry is also the sight of the Food Bank of Northern Indiana.

Last year, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana delivered 9.5 million pounds of food to Elkhart, St. Joseph, Kosciusko, Starke, Marshall and LaPorte counties.

In 2021 there were 34 million people facing hunger, but this rose to 44 million in 2022. One in seven individuals and one in five children face hunger. In the six counties supported by the food bank, the number of households increased by 25% between 2022 and 2023 to 224,214.

"There are a couple of things that kind of have post-COVID have made things challenging. First off, the COVID programs have kind of sunset, so, for some families, there isn't the funding that had been there with COVID. And second, the cost of groceries has gone up, which makes people make tough decisions. That's where we come in," said Bob Wieneke, the food donor relations representative at the food bank.

According to Feeding America, the food insecurity rates for the six northern Indiana counties were: 9.2% for all ages and 10.6% for children in Elkhart County, 9.2% for both groups in Kosciusko County, 11.3% for all ages and 16.3% for children in LaPorte County, 9.8% for all ages and 9.3% for children in Marshall County, 11% and 14.4% in St. Joseph County, and 12.4% all around for Starke County.

"We serve, we help, we provide a needed resource to the community," Wieneke said. "It's a worthwhile cause."

He works with retailers, farmers and other food banks to source food.

"There's enough food for everyone in our country, but it's not getting there. There's a lot of food that's being thrown away, being wasted, for whatever reason. We can all do our part to help. Nobody should go hungry."

It is Wieneke's mission to intercept unnecessary food waste and get it to families in need.

"Each year, 108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States, an estimated 20 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are either discarded or left unharvested each year," he said. "It doesn't need to be that way. Everybody should be able to eat in our country."

Every shipment of food processed by the bank is in somebody's belly by the end of the day, he said.

Wieneke is seeking local farmers to partner with the food bank.

"They can help in a number of ways. They can grow for us. They can identify a row that they would want to donate to the food bank. They can let us know when there's product at the end of the year that we can glean," he said. "Every little bit helps. Every single piece of food that doesn't get used is something that could go to a family that really needs it."

Currently about 10-15 farmers from the area donate, but Wieneke's vision is to get every farmer involved in donations. He also wants to increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables available.

"All fresh is perfect. Food is medicine," he said. "Fresh foods are just so needed by us as a food bank to help the neighbors who need that food. We want fresh, healthy foods to help people live healthy lives."

Most often, they receive canned food donations, followed by frozen foods. But fresh food is ideal, just as it is for consumers at the grocery store. Currently, approximately 20% of the food leaving the food bank is fresh. In 2023, the mobile food bank distributed 918,900 pounds of food, or about 717,891 meals. A total of 9,492,758 pounds were distributed in total.

Approximately 280 households, approximately 1,120 individuals, were served food from the food bank last Friday.

"Our goal is to shorten that line. Food insecurity's a problem, and we want to help that go away. But if people need our help, we are here to help. But we need the help of others. Retail partners, farmers, growers, volunteers are important, donors, financial donors. Everything plays a part in helping to end food insecurity," he said.

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