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MERRILLVILLE — A flurry of hands packed bags of dried noodles and cartons of potato flakes. Standing in the middle of the lineup, U.S. Rep. Frank J. Mrvan loaded containers of toasted wheat cereal.
Mrvan and a crew of volunteers helped the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana prepare boxes Friday for two food-security programs geared toward seniors. The Highland Democrat helped launch one of them during his time as the North Township trustee.
“The Northwest Indiana Food Bank was a safety net during the pandemic,” he said.
According to Feeding America, food bank usage increased by a third during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, Mrvan said, many of the food chain’s vulnerabilities were exposed.
In Northwest Indiana, one major vulnerability was food security among older residents.
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Since 2017, the Food Bank of NWI has served seniors through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, or CSFP. It provides monthly groceries for residents of Lake and Porter counties who are older than 60 and live at 130% of the poverty level or below.
The program started with about 100 participants; the Food Bank now serves about 1,700 seniors. The Food Bank of NWI’s CSFP is the largest in Indiana.
However, Food Bank CEO Victor Garcia said pantries began to notice a “gap” during the pandemic. Seniors who make even 135% of the poverty level do not qualify for CSFP but still needed accessible, nutritious food. In 2020, the food bank began developing the Senior Pantry Pack.
Pantry Pack has no income restrictions. Instead, the food bank works with township trustee offices to identify seniors who may be food insecure. Garcia said Mrvan and the North Township Trustee’s Office were a lead partner on the project.
Kim Robinson, the Calumet Township trustee, said her office just bought their first box of dried and canned goods from the food bank. After working with local farmers to distribute free produce boxes three years ago, Robinson realized a need for consistent access to healthy food.
The Calumet Township food pantry is looking to start operations in the next few weeks and will be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1900 W. 41st Ave. in Gary.
In Indiana, 1 in 9 people face hunger, compared with 1 in 12 in Illinois. The issue is even worse in Lake County, where the food-insecurity rate was 13.1% in 2020; Indiana’s state average was 10.8% that year. According to data from Feeding America, Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties collectively have 96,870 food-insecure residents.
In recent years, the Food Bank of NWI has worked to go beyond “just getting as many pounds of food out as possible,” Garcia said.
They have partnered with local health care providers and urban farms on a Food is Medicine program that prescribes specific foods based on medical needs; they work with the Lake County Juvenile Justice program to get food to children; and they’ve started giving out diapers.
Food Bank deliveries are distributed through local churches, legion halls, community centers and refrigerated smart lockers. They’re similar to an Amazon locker: A digital code allows people to pick up boxes of food at locations throughout the Region. The program is in a pilot phase; there are lockers in Merrillville, East Chicago and Gary, and one soon will be in Valparaiso.
The Food Bank is working to “meet people where they are,” Garcia explained.
“What we know is, individuals who are food insecure have other issues that revolve around the social determinants of health and one of those is going to be a transportation barrier.”
The Food Bank is also working to expand capacity. Officials hope to complete a new $450,000 freezer space next week. Garcia called the 2,800-square-foot cold-storage area a “game changer.”
During the visit Friday morning, Mrvan pledged to ensure that the food bank’s programs receive ample funding in the upcoming farm bill. The package of agriculture and food-related legislation passed every five years provides federal funding for such key programs as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The current farm bill is set to expire in September. A new one is being negotiated in Congress.
“We were here during the pandemic,” Garcia said. “The next tragedy or crisis is coming, so we need to continue to invest in the food bank system because we’re going to be relied on again at some point and we need to make sure that we’re ready to respond.”
PHOTOS: Mrvan volunteers at Food Bank of NWI