In 2010, Food Finders and The Salvation Army invited all food pantries in Tippecanoe County to a discussion of the potential consolidation of funding, volunteer and food resources, in order to offer one large pantry for people needing food assistance. The proposal was one large pantry would be open with extended hours giving the public six days per week access. This proposal was not met with enthusiasm by all parties, and the system of multiple pantries, each open two to eight hours a week, was maintained. To address a shortage of hunger relief efforts in Greater Lafayette, Food Finders opened a pantry located in the Food Resource and Education Center (FREC), in 2016.

Within one year of the Food Finders pantry opening, the largest food pantry in Tippecanoe County closed and two other large pantries reduced their hours and food distribution. In 2019, the second largest pantry in Tippecanoe also closed. The number of households depending on the J.P. Lisack Community Food Pantry at Food Finders grew to 1,500 per week within one month. Although the pantry was only 1,500 square feet of shopping space, the staff efficiently restocked the pantry with food that was continuously trucked from the warehouse. Each one of 10 pantry shifts per week, required a minimum of eight volunteers and three staff members. 20-30 pantry visitors were welcomed into the waiting area, while 10 individuals at a time shopped in the pantry. With an average of 300 visitors per day, 5 days per week, visiting the pantry, people waiting to enter crowded the pantry waiting room, often forming a line outside of the door.

Due to social distancing and high-risk group requirements at the onset of COVID-19, many of our volunteers were required to stay home. To address the decrease in volunteers and increased demand for hunger relief, the Indiana National Guard came to our aid by lending 30 troops to pack and distribute food boxes over the last six months. In order to safely get food to our clients, Food Finders established that packed boxes and bags would be distributed at a drive through pantry located at Linnwood School. When the fall semester of school began at Linnwood, food distribution was moved to handing packed boxes through the doorway of our food pantry.

Knowing the Indiana National Guard would only be offering assistance for a limited time, Food Finders was presented a new challenge of finding a way to distribute food safely, without the labor costs and warehouse logistical issues involved in packing boxes. In addition to the required arranging and rearranging of the warehouse space for truck loading and unloading, we began receiving shipments from the USDA; as they were making literal tons of high quality food available to food banks. The warehouse has been full to capacity many times in the last few months with the additional flux of food in and out.

To address these issues, we explored adding a wing on our warehouse for volunteer activities and additional storage, as this would allow for an increase to the size of the food pantry at the FREC.  Unfortunately, the funding for this project was not available in the limited time at hand to address this issue. Food Finders became aware that the former Save A Lot supermarket, located less than a mile from our other buildings, was empty and available for lease. As an added bonus, all equipment needed to operate the 19,000 square foot grocery store remained in the building and in good condition. The size of the space allows for social distancing guidelines of six feet for patrons and volunteers. Additionally, there is room to store food that will not fit in our warehouse.

While it is not ideal to spread our staff and volunteers across three buildings and pay utilities for three spaces, we can better meet the needs of our community from this expanded space. Our existing pantry was small and inefficient even prior to the pandemic, and we have been turning away large volunteer groups for several years because we lacked the space they needed to work safely. With the new facility we can accept more volunteers, and we will have the space to accept additional produce due to ample refrigeration. The lease on the new building is for three years, and as the community recovers from the setback of the pandemic over this time, Food Finders will have the opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of this new model. At that time, we may opt to purchase the space or add an addition to our warehouse and move the pantry back to a larger version of the original pantry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of Food Finders in the 16 counties we serve, and how the needs of our community must be met, especially in times of crisis. With the new larger space, coined Food Finders Food Bank Fresh Market, we have prepared a safe environment to serve people who need us, and staff and volunteers who serve them. Thank you for your ongoing support of solving hunger today and ending hunger tomorrow in our community. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Thank you for your support,

Katy O’Malley Bunder