Being able to get fresh fruits and vegetables is a huge help to a Franklin mother and daughter, who both recently lost jobs and need help to support their family of four.
Shelley Archer and her daughter, Tanar Gillaspie, moved to Indiana from Texas about two years ago to get away from an abusive relationship. After Archer lost her job, they ended up in a homeless shelter, but were eventually able to get a place of their own.
Both women recently lost their jobs, and the Interchurch Food Pantry has been a huge help to making sure Archer, Gillaspie and her 6-year-old son and 2-month-old baby are all fed. But the fresh fruit and vegetables they can get are the key reason they choose the pantry in Franklin, since that is one of the few foods Gillaspie’s 6-year-old son, who has autism, will eat due to sensory issues.
Since May, the Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County has been getting increased shipments of fresh produce from Indianapolis-based Gleaners Food Bank through a distribution program. The Franklin pantry, which feeds 80 to 100 families per day, is set to get 100,000 pounds of fresh produce for the pantry that is open six days a week, and another 100,000 pounds for the mobile food pantry that opens once a month.
Story continues below gallery
And now, officials with Gleaners want to use what they have learned in Johnson County to get produce to more food pantries across the Midwest.
Focusing on making sure people have healthy foods to eat has been a key focus of Gleaners, said John Elliott, the organization’s president and CEO.
The partnership between Gleaners and the food pantry started years ago, but ramped up early this year as part of Gleaners’ effort to expand its distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.
A $15,900 grant from the Johnson County Community Foundation paid for the Franklin food pantry’s portion of the costs of the more than 200,000 pounds of produce. Gleaners covers the majority of the cost of purchasing, packaging and distributing food, but also needs assistance from food pantries to cover its costs, Elliott said.
Gleaners chose to work with the Interchurch Food Pantry because of its ability to reach a large amount of people in Johnson County, Elliott said. The pantry reaches about 2,000 families each month.
He sees Gleaners’ partnership with the food pantry as a model of how they want to work with other food pantries across the state and Midwest, he said. The organization opened a 300,000-square-foot food processing center in May, which is being used to distribute and package fresh produce to 40 food banks in seven states.
One key lesson learned so far: Efficiency is the biggest challenge in distributing fresh produce, officials said.
While canned and frozen foods can be saved for months or more at a time, getting fresh produce into the hands of families is more urgent.
The nearly 8,000 pounds of fresh apples, sweet potatoes, potatoes and onions dropped off Tuesday morning was set to be handed out to families coming to pick up food at noon, pantry manager Carol Phipps said.
“We have to get it out fast,” she said.
The produce the Interchurch Food Pantry gets has ranged from sweet corn to watermelon, depending on what is in season and what is available, Phipps said.
Before they began working with Gleaners, the food pantry was only able to provide fresh produce on a limited and scattered basis, she said.
The rapid increase in fresh produce has required some changes for the food pantry, Phipps said. They’ve been providing recipes for families, who may need help with ideas on how to cook foods like sweet potatoes. Storing the food properly is also a necessity, and keeping careful track of the shelf life of fruits and vegetables to make sure they are distributed before they spoil.
In addition to produce, families that visit the pantry also get eggs, milk and bread and canned goods.
What they receive from the food pantry goes a long way in filling the gaps that food stamps don’t cover, Archer said.
Both Archer and Gillaspie lost jobs recently because of health problems that are preventing them from working.
Doctors found a growth on Gillaspie’s liver, and she can’t do any heavy lifting until it is dealt with. Initial tests couldn’t confirm whether it was benign or cancerous, and is working with her doctor to see what treatment is needed. For Gillaspie, an upcoming surgery on her arm, which will be in a cast for about six weeks, means she will be out of work as well.
Archer got connected to the pantry about eight months ago, and said she’s not sure what they would do to make ends meet without the assistance.