Six days a week, a line begins to wrap around the Interchurch Food Pantry building in Franklin about 20 minutes before it opens.
When the doors open, the lobby fills with Johnson County residents like Sheila Birk of Greenwood and Barbara Hannigan of Franklin. For the next three hours, more than 20 volunteers pull food from pallets and stock shelves as a steady flow of residents come and go.
By the end of this year, the Interchurch Food Pantry expects to have served twice as many residents as it did in 2012, one of the primary reasons the pantry moved into a bigger building in April.
In May, the first month at its new location at 211 Commerce Drive, the pantry served a record 1,523 households. Since then, the number of households per month has not dropped below 1,500, an increase of 59 percent since the summer of 2014.
Through September, the pantry served more than 12,000 households, almost matching the total number of households served in all of 2014.
“We just outgrew our old space,” pantry manager Carol Phipps said. “Every day we have new people, but we look at that as a good thing. Our clients are saying good things about us, giving people in need another option for food.”
And the growth will only continue. October and November are the busiest months for the pantry as holidays approach and the months get colder, Phipps said. In the past three years, the pantry served nearly 200 more households in October and November than it did in September.
The ages and size of families using the pantry at the new location include young, single parents, elderly couples and families of four or five. The mixed demographics are an indicator of tough times, pantry manager Shelia Morton said.
Birk, a single parent of two, uses the pantry as a last resort when she just can’t make it to the next week. She has a job but doesn’t always work a 40-hour week, she said, so it’s hard to determine how much money she’ll have for bills and groceries.
For others, like Hannigan, the pantry is a continuing necessity. She and her son both receive medical disability benefits. Combined, they receive $1,500 in disability benefits and $100 in food stamps each month.
“You don’t understand, $100 is not enough to feed all of us for the entire month,” Hannigan said. “We don’t have any extra money. We come two times a month. We are very grateful for the food pantry.”
She visits twice a month, which the pantry now allows since partnering with Gleaner’s Food Bank in August 2014.
Previously, the pantry allowed only one visit per month per household. Being able to visit twice a month is a huge help for families who face hardships, such as having a family member recently laid off or simply not making enough to make ends meet, Phipps said.
The new location is also a draw for families, she said.
Before the move, families would stop by the pantry and select items off a menu. Now, at the new location, families can come in and select items like a grocery store. The new location has a larger back room, and volunteers continually restock shelves during the three hours the pantry is open each day.
Families who visit the new pantry like the setup better because of the choice and selection and how fast they can get in and out, Phipps said.
But the other part of the increase is the need.
“We knew the growth would come. And we have bigger facilities now and more food,” Morton said. “These families have legit reasons to come. The jobs are hard to find out there. It’s very sad. But we are moving right along and ready to help.”
Before residents come for the first time, they fill out a sheet that requires them to list the size of their family and their income. Beyond that, the pantry doesn’t ask further questions, Phipps said. But it gives the pantry an idea of why some families struggle.
“From talking to people, I would say that roughly half the families that come in just aren’t making enough money to get by,” Phipps said. “Many can’t afford food because of the cost of rent, or they have to choose between buying food or their medication or medical needs.”
Here is a look at how many households have relied on the Interchurch Food Pantry since 2012:
Total: 8,848 total households.
Busiest month: August, 855 households
Total: 8,831 total households
Busiest month: November, 921 households
Total: 12,093 total households
Busiest month: October, 1,406 households
2015 (through September)
Total: 12,003 households
Busiest month: August, 1,597 households