January 11, 2015 10:13 am
Christine Bryant Times Correspondent

As featured in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

Hunger doesn’t end after the holidays – there’s always a need for food. That’s the message one local non-profit organization is spreading now that the time of year when people typically are most generous is over.

“Our holiday was very busy with food and fund drives throughout Lake and Porter counties,” said Erika Dahl, communications and special events manager for the Food Bank of NWI. “There are a number of generous individuals, companies and groups that put together their own food and fund drives, and we had people dropping off food and checks for us throughout November and December.”

However, there’s a need for help year-round, and look no further than the food bank’s numbers for 2014 for proof.

In 2014, the organization processed and delivered nearly 4.5 million meals to the hungry in Northwest Indiana.

“This includes food that went to our 100 plus partner agencies, soup kitchens and hunger relief programs,” Dahl said.

With winter now here, efforts are still under way to meet the needs of large food distributions.

“This is where the food bank distributes to the community directly,” said. “We choose a location, spread the word we will be there and hand out food to those who need food assistance.”

Last year, the food bank also implemented new programs, one of which is essential during the cold, winter months for a sector of the region’s population, Dahl said.

Senior Pac, a new program funded through a grant, allows the food bank to distribute a month’s worth of food to 100 seniors monthly in East Chicago.

“Many seniors have difficulties getting to and from pantries, stores and doctors’ offices, especially during our harsh winters,” Dahl said. “We would like to find additional funding to keep it going in the future and to other areas of Northwest Indiana.”

Though seniors and struggling families are often the focus of food pantries, another new initiative is focusing on an often forgotten sector of the population.

Through a partnership with Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, the food bank recently opened its first student pantry. “This gives a good idea of those in need,” Dahl said. “It’s anyone. We always say, every person living in Northwest Indiana is one pink slip, one injury, one car break-down from using our services. It’s not always who you would think.”

The school-based pantry shows the need for the food bank’s services on college campuses.

“This is one of those growing needs – local students are often times choosing between food on their table and gas in their car, rent or paying for a semester of books,” Dahl said.

The pantry is located on the college’s campus, using unused office space as the pantry.

“The school used to collect food or purchase it on their own, but now they are a member of the Food Bank of NWI and are able to get food from us either free or for a severely reduced cost,” Dahl said.

Opened in 1981, the food bank has under went several changes over the years – perhaps not to the public eye, but more so in operations, Dahl said.

“When the food bank first opened, we received much of the food from the other food banks in Chicago and Indianapolis,” she said. “Now we purchase food, have a food rescue program and have wonderful relationships with our local grocery and retail stores who donate unused products directly to us.”

Along with its 97 pantries and soup kitchens, the food bank has working relationships with several companies, foundations and retailers as well.

Through the support of local Northwest Indiana McDonald’s owners and operators, for example, the Pantry on the Go program is a mobile pantry that travels to distressed communities that don’t have access to a traditional food pantry.

“We arrive at a location to provide free grocery items to that community,” Dahl said.

Once a week from March until December, the program serves 26,000 annually, she said.

“McDonald’s workers volunteer their time to assist in the distribution of the food,” she said.

The food bank also works with several Strack & Van Til stores throughout Lake and Porter counties, which assist with food drives and fund drives, Dahl said.

The youth BackPack program also enlists the community’s help by providing nutritious food to economically disadvantaged school children.

“Each Friday during the school year, children in the program receive a backpack filled with weekend meals,” Dahl said.

During the summer, as part of the national Summer Food Services Program, the food bank provides breakfast and lunch to children 18 and younger as well.

If anyone in the community would like to donate goods of volunteer their time to the food bank, Dahl said they always accept non-perishable items and financial gifts. There is a list of most-need items on the organization’s website as well.