January 17, 2014

Terre Haute food bank campaign raises funds for new building

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin addresses participants at the Hope for Hunger event on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute. The fundraiser helped not only to raise funds to purchase a larger facility for the Catholic Charities Terre Haute Food Bank, but also to increase awareness of the problem of hunger in west central Indiana. (Submitted photo)

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin addresses participants at the Hope for Hunger event on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute. The fundraiser helped not only to raise funds to purchase a larger facility for the Catholic Charities Terre Haute Food Bank, but also to increase awareness of the problem of hunger in west central Indiana. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Tina Elliott told a heart-tugging tale of hunger in west central Indiana.

“One of my dear friends is a bus driver in the Vigo County School Corporation.

“She once told me of a child who was upset because school might be canceled the next day due to an impending snow storm.

“My friend asked why this child wouldn’t want to stay home for the day and play in the snow.

“The little girl’s response was heartbreaking. ‘Because we won’t get lunch if we aren’t in school tomorrow, and we don’t have enough food at home.’ ”

Elliot, who serves with her husband, Earl, as chairperson for the Close the Meal Gap campaign, shared the story in her opening comments at the Hope for Hunger event on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute. The fundraiser served as the official start of the public portion of the $2.5 million campaign to raise funds to purchase a larger building for the Terre Haute Catholic Charities Food Bank.

‘A logistical challenge’

Opened in 1980, the food bank is part of the Feeding America nationwide network of food banks. The facility in Terre Haute serves 92 entities such as food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Clay, Greene, Knox, Parke, Sullivan, Vermillion and Vigo counties.

“We receive 3 million pounds of food a year,” said John Etling, agency director for Terre Haute Catholic Charities. “That equates to two-and-a-half million meals every year.

“But the amount of food we’re bringing in is proving to be a logistical challenge. We don’t have a loading dock [at our current facility]. We don’t have an area for sorting, for repacking, for being able to get bulk loads of food in packages sized that our pantries can handle.

“We’re located in an intercity area on city streets,” Etling added. “There are two lanes of traffic and no apron for our trucks.

“We’ve become a limiting factor [in the food network].”

‘A real sense of urgency’

Several years ago, Etling said, a building was identified near the Terre Haute International Airport that could provide a solution to the food bank’s space problem.

The building was completed in 2008 and used by Reel Time Logistics. The business closed after just one year.

At 37,000 square feet, the building is more than triple the size of the food bank’s current space. And with 30 acres of property, Etling hopes to one day start gardens so the food bank can provide fresh produce and become a “more whole food, natural food bank.”

According to Etling, 60 percent of the goal has been raised via one-on-one meetings with individuals and corporations. The campaign is now entering its public phase to garner the remainder of the $2.5 million goal.

Jennifer Buell, development director for Terre Haute Catholic Charities, explained that $1.5 million will go toward purchasing and renovating the building.

“We need to add a walk-in cooler and freezer unit,” she said. “Each of those will hold 240-250 pallets [of food], which is a huge increase over what we have now.

“Plus we need to add pallet racks, sorting stations, and we need to redesign at least one of the loading docks to handle a pickup truck or minivan.”

The remaining $1 million will go toward a maintenance endowment.

“We know that with an increase in the size of the facility will come additional operating expenses. We want to make sure we’ve planned for those,” Buell explained.

Etling said the improvements will take 60-90 days to complete once started, but no action will be taken until the funds are raised.

He said he hopes that happens soon.

“There’s a real sense of urgency to see this through to completion,” he said.

‘One in six’ suffers food insecurity

A recent study shines light on that urgency.

According to Etling, a national hunger study completed four years ago indicated that 42,000 people in the food bank’s seven-county area suffered from food insecurity. In an area with a total population around 258,000, that equates to 16 percent of the population.

“That’s one in six,” Buell explained. “But if you just look at children in the area, it’s one in four.”

Etling said these statistics are unacceptable.

“We shouldn’t have to decide whose turn it is to eat today because of lack of access, not in Indiana where 23 percent of our state economy is derived from agriculture.”

Raising awareness of the problem of poverty in west central Indiana is one of the key components of the campaign, said Buell.

“We tend to go through life and have the same routine every day. We go to work, go home, take the same route. Unless you make an effort to go to impoverished areas, you might not realize the poverty exists.”

‘Freedom from Want’

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin spoke at the Hope for Hunger event. His words struck a chord with Etling.

“He referred to that iconic painting by Norman Rockwell of a family gathered around a Thanksgiving table and everyone has an empty plate,” Etling said.

“The name of that painting is actually ‘Freedom from Want.’ [The archbishop explained that] it was one of four freedoms that FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] spoke of in the 1940s, along with freedom from fear, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

“Those freedoms were key components of the time, but they’re relevant now, maybe even more so.”

Buell was struck by a story the archbishop told regarding a time he helped in a food pantry years ago.

“He said he realized that sometimes people don’t necessarily want to be in the position they’re in,” she said. “They are looking not for a handout, but for what they need to get by. The archbishop shed a new light on what life is like for so many of the families in our community.”

‘The time is now’

The Elliotts were among those who were not familiar with the poverty of the area.

“In our meeting [about considering being chairpersons for the campaign], they said that [the Terre Haute food bank] supplies 2.5 million meals, but that 7.25 million meals are needed,” said Earl. “That’s a huge meal gap.”

His wife, Tina, added that the figure “made my jaw drop. I didn’t realize how many children are sent home with food on the weekends.”

Such a dramatic need in their own community motivated the Elliotts, members of St. Benedict Parish in Terre Haute, to spearhead the campaign.

“The need for food, especially for these children, is 365 days a year, and only 180 of those are school days,” said Earl. “That’s half of the year that needs are not met. We need to relieve that challenge.”

In the closing statements of her address at the Hope for Hunger event, Tina urged those present to pray.

“Pray for the children who are going to bed tonight with less than full tummies. And pray for their parents who want to provide for them, that they won’t lose hope, and that we can continue to offer them the help they need.”

Etling reiterated the urgent need for action.

“The time is now. As people of faith, we can’t just leave this to someone else to do.”

(For more information about the campaign or to make a donation, call Jennifer Buell, director of development for Terre Haute Catholic Charities, at 812-232-1447.)

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