FEEDING A NEED (Holiday helpings)

The paycheck a Whiteland woman receives from her full-time job is enough to pay for food or Christmas presents, but not both.

Debbie Hartsock is a department manager for a local store, and she lives with her son, his girlfriend and three grandchildren. Usually she can keep the cupboards and refrigerator full, but this month she doesn’t have enough to pay for food and gifts.

“You want that extra little bit to at least get something for your kids,” Hartsock said. “And sometimes it’s either that extra little bit or groceries.”

To make up the difference, Hartsock and thousands of other Johnson County residents are turning to local food pantries, including the Interchurch Food Pantry in Franklin and The Refuge in Greenwood. Officials at both pantries know that November and December are their busiest months of the year because of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they prepare by reminding dozens of area churches, businesses and schools known for making food and financial contributions that they can’t feed all of the families in need without their support.

“When the cupboard gets bare, a place like this is a lifesaver,” Hartsock said.

While Johnson County’s unemployment rate has been dropping, wages have remained stagnant or increased only slightly, while health care, food and other costs have continued to rise. That’s causing more families to turn to the food pantries for assistance during the holidays, Interchurch manager Shelia Morton and Refuge community outreach coordinator Kerry Jones said.

November and December are the two busiest months for food pantries, as families try to afford holiday meals and Christmas presents. Last month, Interchurch provided food for 1,329 families, totaling 5,397 people. That’s up from November 2013, when 921 with 3,644 people came for food, Morton said.

During the first six months of 2014, about 800 families per month came through Interchurch, pantry manager Carol Phipps said.

At The Refuge, about 63 families were coming through the food pantry every week in October. That number climbed to about 80 families per week in November, and this month Jones expects an average of between 90 and 100 families each week, she said.

Despite the increased demand, Morton and Jones believe they’ll be able to provide enough food for all of the families who come through, largely because of contributions from churches, businesses and residents, they said.

For example, Interchurch has partnerships with about 30 area churches, about 70 businesses and several hundred residents that provide money, food and volunteers during the holiday season. The food pantry talks regularly with these groups so they know what to expect going into the busy months of November and December, Phipps said.

“We have really good folks that believe in the pantry and donate,” Morton said. “They see the need, and they’re very generous.”

Right now, the most popular item at both food pantries is meat. Turkey is the most in demand, but people also want chicken, hamburger and pork, because families want to have something filling to put on their tables for their Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, Morton and Jones said.

Much of the food handed out at Interchurch comes from the Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana and the Midwest Food Bank, which are both based out of Indianapolis. Morton tells Gleaners how many people Interchurch expects to come through, and whether the food pantry is running out of anything. Interchurch pays for some of the food it receives from Gleaners with money that’s been donated; other food from Gleaners is free for Interchurch, as is all of the food it receives from Midwest, Phipps said.

Food drives conducted by schools, businesses and churches also ensure that both food banks never run out of groceries. At Interchurch, those food drives typically collect between 400 and 600 pounds of food that are handed out to residents and families during the holidays, Morton said.

“It goes in, it goes right back out,” she said.

And all of the food given away at The Refuge comes from churches, families and businesses who give to the food pantry, Jones said.

“That’s a testimony to people in our community wanting to help,” Jones said.

By the numbers

Here’s a look at the number of area residents who have come through the Interchurch Food Pantry in Franklin, and The Refuge food pantry in Greenwood:

Interchurch Food Pantry

November 2014:

1,329 families

5,397 people

November 2013:

921 families

3,644 people

The Refuge

October 2014: About 63 families per week

November 2014: About 80 families per week

Expected this month: Between 90 and 100 families per week