Food pantries are an important part of the safety net for the one in six Indiana residents who struggles with hunger. But pantries face a lot of obstacles when it comes to providing fresh, healthy food.
One project in Hamilton County, Indiana, is tapping into the power of urban gardening to stock pantry shelves with local produce.
It started with urban conservationist, Claire Lane. She recognized a problem in her community.
“Some pantries are at the mercy of what gets donated, so it’s a lot of pasta and carbs and a lot of salt,” says Lane. “A lot of kids or adults they might be obese and well feed but they are eating the wrong things.”
Lane works for the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District and she recently received a $50,000 federal grant to get more fresh produce to people. In recent years, food networks and federal food programs have expanded farm to pantry programs and other ways to get fresh produce onto people’s plates because there is such a need.
Lane's strategy? Focus on urban gardens. Find successful programs, see how they are able to make connections, break down the barriers to fresh food access and help others learn to grow.
One of the more successful programs in Hamilton County is at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana.
At their community garden in early November, vegetables were still growing on the vines.
Parishioners like Wayne Gartner volunteer to grow the veggies that local food pantries need the most – things people are familiar with and can easily incorporate them into their meals.
Gartner says It’s been a productive year and counts the number of vegetables they’ve harvested.
“132 onions, 412 carrots, 1666 hot peppers,” Gartner says.
He also picks a jalapeño.
“They are very popular,” says Gatner. “We have a large Hispanic population that use the pantries.”
But Lane says there’s more to solving this problem than planting seeds. She says smaller pantries have limited resources.
“They’re strapped for volunteers, the people they have are working really hard and devoting a lot of time and they don’t have the time to make these connections,” Lane says.
She hopes to help by creating a network between urban gardens and pantries so there is better coordination.
“If the pantry’s pick up day is Wednesday and the garden is delivering on Thursday that food doesn’t keep till next week,” says Lane.
Lane’s solutions are representative of a trend in fighting Indiana’s food deserts and limited access.
Feeding Indiana’s Hungry executive director, Emily Weikert Bryant says healthy food access is a concern for many of the clients they serve.
“We know many have health issues, about a third of them have diabetes a number of them have hypertension,” Weikert Bryant says.
“Because we’re serving so many in that community.” says Weikert Bryant, “we’re serving about one in six Hoosiers.”
Merciful Help Center food pantry in Hamilton county serves more than 100,000 people every year.
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church is already providing the pantry with fresh produce and they’re not the only one says director Jane Slaton.
“We had a farmer recently and he decided to do a whole field and give us fresh beans for the whole season,” says Slaton. “Which is so great.”
The Merciful pantry has a volunteer dietician who has created a point scale to determine healthfulness and distributes recipes to show people how to use fruits and veggies they aren’t familiar with, like turnips.
She looks at what they have and prints recipes, like mashed turnips, turnips with crispy bacon, and roasted turnips.
Food and garden education, better communication between farm and pantry – this is the new face in the fight against food insecurity in Indiana.