Shelves full of canned vegetables, boxes of cereal and jars of pasta sauce filled the shelves at the Refuge food pantry.
Bags filled with oranges and apples, laundry soap, peanut butter and other items were loaded into carts Thursday night, ready to be transferred to people’s cars. Little Caesars had donated pizzas, so families coming to the pantry would have something to eat.
As the team of volunteers waited to open the doors, the only question was if people would show up.
“I trust we will have a lot of people because we have a lot of food,” Marcie Farley, office coordinator for the Refuge, said to the group of helpers before opening the doors.
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The network of food pantries stretching across Johnson County is as large as it has ever been. Agencies are serving thousands of households every month, providing days worth of fresh meat, produce and dairy, canned goods and staples such as bread. In some cases, the pantries can provide toilet paper, deodorant, toothpaste and other essentials that families struggle to afford.
The largest pantry in the county, the Interchurch Food Pantry in Franklin, has seen steady growth in its clientele during the past three years. But others have the food to help people but haven’t seen the response from the needy.
By communicating and working together, pantry directors are better prepared to tackle the enormity of the poverty issue in the county.
“What we would love to see is the people that need help know that we’re here and know that we care for them to come,” said Kerry Jones, executive director of the Refuge. “It’s very hard. It’s a very humbling experience to walk into a strange building and not know what you’re going to face and how people are going to look at you.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14.8 percent of the population in Johnson County is considered in poverty. Unemployment has dropped to 4.5 percent, but the per capita income for the county was just $28,555 per year.
In February, Johnson County had more than 4,100 households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known food stamps. Another 97 families received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to help with monthly costs, such as rent, utilities and groceries.
The need is out there, Farley said.
“There will always be a need for the homeless,” she said. “There will always be a need for basic necessities, for food pantries.”
The Refuge opened in 2007 as an independently run faith-based outreach center, providing food as well as job training, life skills and youth tutoring. A budgeting class was recently started to help people find ways to stretch their income further.
Volunteers and staff provide people with the tools they need, both professionally and spiritually, to work themselves out of poverty.
“Our goal is to serve those who are hurting, whether that’s physically, emotionally, academically, spiritually — we want to be that overall agency where they can come to,” Jones said. “We wanted to have life-skill classes for those who are in a situation that they don’t know how to get out of.
The food pantry is the biggest draw. Open twice each week, the pantry serves about 20 households. Clients can come in monthly to load up on a few weeks worth of fresh and nonperishable food. Household items such as laundry soap and toothpaste are given out when the pantry has them.
The Refuge serves each household only once each month. But when they come in, the group provide them with a list of other local food pantries, to help fill in gaps in their food need, Farley said.
“Often, when we sit with a client for benevolence who are having trouble paying a bill or a utility, we can’t guarantee that we can pay for that. But we can guarantee that if you come back to the food pantry, you will get food, and that will free up money to help pay for some of those things,” Farley said.
Johnson County now boasts 11 pantries. More than half of those have opened in the past eight years, since the recession of 2008 created economic turmoil for so many local families.
In addition, existing pantries have expanded greatly. The Interchurch Food Pantry moved into a new building last year, to help handle the need, said Carol Phipps, pantry manager. The pantry has seen a 34 percent increase in number of households served in the first three months of 2016 compared to same time last year.
The Lord’s Locker, a longtime Trafalgar food pantry and ministry, serves 40 families, or about 115 people, each week. The pantry opened its new building this week in the parking lot of the former Trafalgar United Methodist Church.
The new space allows the Lord’s Locker to move families through the pantry more efficiently and opens the potential to serve more people.
“There’s a lot more personal care now in the way we’ve set up our pantry,” said Emmalea Butler, pantry director. “We’re a ministry where people can come to become hands and feet of Jesus Christ. In doing that, this building not only meets the needs of our guests coming in, but it meets our need to see the difference we make when we get outside our box.”
But some pantry operators worry that people are missing out on the helping hand that they can provide.
The CARE Pantry, a program of the Center Grove Alternative Academy, has served more than 22,000 people in more than 6,000 families since it opened in 2008. The pantry opens once a week, with students helping families whenever school is in session.
Still, since September of last year, the number of people served at the pantry has dropped, from 722 people to a low of 227 people in March, said administrative assistant Terry Lain.
“We haven’t been able to put the finger on the pulse on why this was happening,” she said. “Maybe because our hours aren’t as easy to do as other ones, since we follow a school calendar. We haven’t been able to figure it out.”
Part of the problem is connecting to the right provider. To help prevent people from falling through the cracks, the groups do work together to some extent.
The United Way of Johnson County maintains a database called Charity Tracker, which allows different groups and nonprofits to keep tabs on individual people. Even if they can’t meet the need of a particular client, staff at the Refuge can refer them to another organization better equipped to help.
“We’re all pretty good about trying to identify different ways to help,” Jones said.
The Lord’s Locker works regularly with the Interchurch Food Pantry, sharing systems to help track clients and ensure they get the best service when they come to the pantry, Butler said.
Butler also has worked with pantries in Marion, Morgan and Brown counties to fine-tune the operation of the pantry, from acquiring food to organizing volunteers. Extra items that the Lord’s Locker can’t use are passed out to other pantries.
If smaller church pantries want to help the needy but don’t have the infrastructure in place to open their own pantry, Butler encourages them to send people to them.
“Rather than them having to go to the grocery store with people, have them come here,” she said. “Don’t kill yourself over it when we have something that will help them during the week.”
The Harvest Food Pantry at SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church often coordinates with its Center Grove-area neighbor, the CARE Pantry, as well as the program at Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church.
“We talk to them quite a bit. We provide them with some of our food if they need it, or if they have too much of something, they give it to us,” said Tammy Murray, chairwoman of the pantry.
The Interchurch Food Pantry has coordinated with three other pantries to donate vehicles, freezers and refrigerators to help their operations, Phipps said. The organization had 39 churches help support it in 2015, as well as 52 businesses and organizations contributing funds.
At the same time, eight churches help support the Refuge through donations and volunteers every month.
“That’s one thing that Johnson County is great about — the partnerships with other agencies,” Jones said. “We can identify what they do vs. what we do, working together for what these people need.”
Location: The Hope Centre, 65 Airport Parkway, Suite 114, Greenwood
Open: 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesday, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday
Pet Pantry: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 13, July 13 and Oct. 12
Donations: Accepted during office or pantry hours
Eligibility: All residents living in Johnson County may visit once per month
Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County
Location: 211 Commerce Drive, Franklin
Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays
Donations: Accepted during hours of operation
Eligibility: Recipients must provide proof of residence in Johnson County; clients may visit twice per month.
Information: 736-5090, firstname.lastname@example.org
CARE Food Pantry
Location: 2911 S. Morgantown Road, Greenwood
Hours: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Friday when Center Grove schools are in session.
Eligibility: Recipients must provide photo ID as well as proof of residence in Johnson County. Recipients may visit the pantry once per calendar month.
Donations: Foods and toiletries are accepted when school is in session from 9 to 11 a.m. Friday. For large donations, call the office to arrange a time for drop-off.
His Hand Extended Food and Clothing Pantry
Location: Trinity broadcasting, 2528 S. U.S. 31, Greenwood
Hours: 10 a.m. Thursdays; a devotional service follows sign-in
Eligibility: Services available to residents of Johnson, Morgan, Monroe, Jennings, Shelby and Bartholomew counties. A photo ID is required. Limited to first 30 households each week
Donations: Non-perishable food items, clothing and small household items may be dropped off 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Mount Pleasant Christian Church Community Ministry Center
Location: 381 N. Bluff Road, Greenwood
Open: 9:15 to 9:40 a.m., 12:15 to 12:40 p.m. or 6:15 to 6:40 p.m. Thursday; also 9:15 to 9:40 a.m. the first and third Saturday of every month
Donations: items may be dropped off 9 a.m. to noon Mondays, Tuesdays and first and third Saturdays of the month and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays
Eligibility: Recipients must bring a picture ID of all adults in a family, as well as two pieces of mail with an address for adults, and birth certificates or Social Security cards for all children in a family.
Location: 106 E. Pearl St., Trafalgar
Open: Wednesdays: 9 to 11 a.m. for senior citizens (over 60 only; clients must be in the building by 9:30 a.m. to receive food). 1 p.m. for heads of household (clients 40 to 59 years; must be in the building by 1:30 p.m. to receive food). Thursdays: 6 p.m. for heads of household (ages 20 to 39 years; must be in the building by 6:30 p.m. to receive food). During all distribution times, devotion and prayer will be followed by food distribution and shopping.
Donations: Accepted 9 a.m. to noon Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday; 9 a.m. to noon the third Saturday of every month
Eligibility: All new clients will be interviewed and evaluated for Strategies of Success programming. Clients will receive prayer and Biblical counseling and other aid such as job search help. Potential new clients can interview from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Potential clients should bring a photo ID; Social Security numbers for the head of household, spouse and children under 18; a current paid receipt of a utility, rent or mortgage with current address (P.O. boxes not accepted). Photo IDs will be required with each visit. Services will only be offered to residents of Johnson, Morgan and Brown counties. Non-residents will be given a list of other places to go for help.
Our Lady of the Greenwood
Location: 335 S. Meridian St., Greenwood
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday except when parish office is closed.
Donations: Patrons can make donations at the red cart inside the back door of the church between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call the church for large donations.
Eligibility: Recipients must provide proof of residence with photo ID and must be income qualified depending on household size.
SS. Francis and Clare Parish Harvest Food Pantry
Location: 5901 Olive Branch Road, Greenwood
Open: 9 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Saturday of the month; 10 a.m. to noon second Wednesday of each month; 5 to 7 p.m. fourth Monday of the month
Donations: Donations can be brought in during operating hours of pantry from 9 a.m. to noon, second and fourth Saturday.
Eligibility: All residents of Johnson and Morgan counties may visit the pantry once a month. Recipients must bring proof of residency and a photo ID.
The Salvation Army Food Pantry
Location: 325 Market Plaza, Greenwood
Open: 12:30 to 3 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday
Eligibility: Clients must be Johnson County residents and must bring the following information to receive help: proof of address, photo ID, and proof of income meeting Federal poverty guidelines for assistance for everyone over the age of 18
Clients may visit the pantry every 60 days and provide information listed above each time they visit.
Information: Contact Ricky Hayes at the times listed above, 881-2505.
Share ‘n’ Care Food Pantry
Location: 200 Sunset Blvd., Greenwood
Open: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays. Pantry is also closed during the winter in case of inclement weather.
Eligibility requirements: All clients must present a Social Security card, driver’s license and proof of residency.
For more information, call 881-5743.
The Social of Greenwood
Location: 550 Polk St., Greenwood
Open: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays (closed every third Thursday), 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Fridays, though no pantry on April 29; open to the general public (all ages) from noon to 2 p.m. last Saturday of the month unless it’s a holiday weekend.
Eligibility: Anyone over age 50 with photo ID. Visits limited to once per week per household.
Information: 882-4810; www.thesocialofgreenwood.org