La PORTE — Between a potentially deadly virus leaders are struggling to contain and an economic downturn that is leaving more and more Americans jobless by the hours, local families have a lot to worry about these days.
Feeding their loved ones shouldn’t be one of those concerns.
That’s the attitude the staff and volunteers of several La Porte food pantries, who have doubled their efforts over the past two weeks to meet the growing demand for their services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pax Center, located at 605 Washington St., is among these organizations.
Operated by State Street Community Church, the community center’s food pantry has seen a tremendous rise in users over the past two weeks, as restaurants, retail shops and other service businesses across Indiana have closed in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, The Pax Center handed out food to 450 individuals. By comparison, during that same period the previous month, it had aided 231 people.
Many of those seeking help were reaching out to the food pantry for the first time, having recently lost work due to their employer shutting down or scaling back its workforce, said Pastor Nate Loucks, president of The Pax Center.
“Many were in jobs that they wouldn’t have expected a month ago that they’d be laid off from,” he said. “Now, they don’t know when they’ll be able to work again.”
Despite the increased demand, the center is keeping its shelves stocked with enough food items to keep up, Loucks said.
Though supplies have remained fairly stable at the agency’s primary provider, Food Bank of Northern Indiana, purchasing items from local suppliers has been more challenging, Loucks said. As these companies are also feeling the strain from increased demand from customers, they have had to increase their food prices, placing additional pressure on the agency’s budget, the pastor said.
“Things are now changing week-to-week – sometimes day-to-day,” he said.
Due to safety concerns, The Pax Center has also cut down on the number of volunteers manning the food pantry, operating with a “skeleton crew” for the time being, Loucks said.
Fortunately, the center has enjoyed increased support from the community over the past several weeks, with many companies and organizations stepping up contributions to help the food pantry overcome these challenges, the pastor said. On Wednesday, a dozen deputies with the La Porte County Sheriff’s Department pitched in as well, helping the pantry unload a 10,000-pound food shipment.
Though donations are always welcome, Loucks said the community could help out just by reaching out to others in need in the city, be in checking in on a family member they haven’t spoken to in a while or buying groceries for an elderly neighbor.
Center Township Trustee Lisa Pierzakowski and her team have also been dealing with an increased demand for service at her office’s food pantry.
The number of households they are supporting has doubled over the past two weeks, and, with more and more locals losing work, Pierzakowski expects the number to continue to grow, she said.
The trustee’s office has been able to meet the additional need, fortunately, Pierzakowski said.
The township team has been resupplying at the local food bank once a week, stocking up on fresh meat, fruits and vegetables to distribute to families. The pantry got an extra boost this week thanks to a donation from Blue Chip Casino, which delivered an ample supply of produce that would have otherwise gone to waste, as the business is currently closed.
In addition to the food bank, the Center Township Trustee office is still providing its regular financial assistance and guidance to residents.
With the office closed, however, people are asked to call ahead. The township staff will then gather any necessary documents, which they will then email or mail to them, or prepare a packet that residents can pick-up at the office.
The staff and volunteers with the La Porte Salvation Army have also been working tirelessly to help feed local families.
Like The Pax Center, the charity has seen a spike in demand for its food pantry since last week, said Capt. Chris Karlin. Usually serving around 40 households, the organization is now supporting between 80 to 90 families, he said.
The organization has also begun serving drive-thru dinners to families from one of the Salvation Army’s food trucks outside its facility at 3240 Monroe St.
Karlin is borrowing the vehicle from the organization’s regional headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The captain drove up on March 15 to grab the truck following a call with Mayor Tom Dermody, who asked if the Salvation Army could step up to support the community during the intensifying public health crisis.
Since then, Karlin and his team of volunteers have prepared a warm meal for the community every weeknight, whipping up dishes like chili, chicken enchiladas, beef stew and more for hungry families. Over the past eight days alone, they have served more than 1,700 meals, averaging around 200 a night, he said.
Despite the amount work that goes into preparing food for hundreds, the experience has been a blast so far for Karlin, who loves to cook, he said.
“Just being able to cook for people, to make sure the community is fed, that no one goes hungry, brings joy to me,” he said.
Though schools may be closed, the Salvation Army is continuing to feed children as well through its Backpack Program. Parents whose children are enrolled in the program can pick up a weekend’s worth of healthy food for their young ones at the facility, or they can have it delivered to their homes.
Providing this level of service to the community comes at a cost – literally – though, Karlin said.
Though businesses and volunteers have been quite generous, donating their time and food for the food truck, in particular, the captain said the agency is going through funds very quickly at the moment. He is considering applying for grant dollars to ensure that they can continue meeting the demand.
The captain is confident, however, that things will work out.
“No matter what, we’re not going anywhere,” Karlin said. “Our goal is to serve the community and that’s what we’re going to do.”