May 8, 2020

Amid increased need, St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry sees ‘display of community’

Volunteers place food in the trunk of a car on March 28 as part of the temporary drive-through process the Indianapolis Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s leadership devised for its Food Pantry to adapt to guidelines during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted photo by SunShine Rucker)

Volunteers place food in the trunk of a car on March 28 as part of the temporary drive-through process the Indianapolis Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s leadership devised for its Food Pantry to adapt to guidelines during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted photo by SunShine Rucker)

By Natalie Hoefer

Amid the stress of continuing to meet the needs of an ever-growing number of clients at the Indianapolis Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry (SVdP), executive director Peter Zublar hones in one incident.

“One lady walked up and was hoping for milk, but we’d run out,” he recalls. “This other [client] was packing up items to go on his bike. He said, ‘You can have mine. I’m OK, and I probably have too much on my bike. You have a kid and you need it more than me.’

“That really stuck with me,” says Zublar.

It’s one example of generosity flowing both ways as the food pantry seeks to meet a nearly 25 percent increase in demand as businesses furloughed or fired workers after the state called for the closing of all but essential businesses in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

What had been a challenge to feed 3,000 households a week is now a struggle to feed nearly 4,000 households per week. (Related: Some of the programs feeding central and southern Indiana)

And with many of their volunteers falling into the high-risk category of contracting COVID-19, “every day is an adventure, because we don’t know who will show up each morning to volunteer,” says Zublar.

But he sees positive signs in the midst of the challenges. Like the man with the milk.

“The level of stress and anxiety everyone is under are just very great,” he says. “But there’s really a neat display of community that you see taking place on a daily basis.”

‘Instability in their financial situation’

The majority of the roughly 2,500 new people being served per week at the pantry are “people laid off work who have always been able to manage with income from a job,” says Zublar. “Now there’s great instability in their financial situation.”

The food pantry has also taken on providing food for another demographic: those transitioning from living on the streets.

“We still deliver to about 360 to 370 homebound or disabled and elderly [people] three days a week,” Zublar notes.

“On top of that, during the COVID crisis we’re feeding about 250 individuals every day who live at Blue Triangle Apartments,” transitional housing for those previously homeless.

“What they’ve run into is a lot of smaller [food] pantries folks may have gone to near the apartments have closed down, and most of them can’t afford public transportation,” he says.

‘Move more people faster and safer’

To meet the needs of the increased number arriving at the SVdP Food Pantry for help due to the pandemic, the coordinators had to rethink the way the food pantry operates.

“We are a client-choice food pantry—we operate like a grocery store where people come in and choose items,” Zublar explains.

“Because of the need to move more people through in a faster and safer fashion,” he says, they developed two outdoor staging areas, one for those arriving by car and one for those coming by foot or on bike.

Under large tents, volunteers now place prepared boxes of non-perishable food items—plus milk and choices of produce—in car trunks and in baskets or luggage used by those walking or riding a bike.

Other safety measures are now in place as well. Volunteers must wear masks, and sanitation stations are set up inside and outside of pantry. Safe-distance lines mark the bike/walk waiting line outside and work areas inside the pantry.

“It’s hard sometimes because of the hustle and bustle, but we make every effort to keep everyone 6 feet apart,” Zublar says.

‘An uptick in non-traditional volunteers’

Whether it’s one of the food pantry’s three distribution days or not, the pantry still needs 40-50 volunteers every day, says Zublar.

“We have to fold and pre-package over 1,000 boxes every day we’re not open for distribution,” he says.

“To distribute food in a four-hour window requires people to bring food into pantry, stage outside, direct traffic, work at the tents to distribute the food, then bring all those items back in.”

Yet many of the those whom Zublar calls “traditional” volunteers, those in the high-risk category of contracting the coronavirus due to health conditions or age, “have had to scale back their volunteer time or not come at all until this passes,” he says.

But on a positive note, he says the food pantry has seen “a real uptick in non-traditional volunteers.

“We have seen volunteers who are working from home now take a couple hours a day or week to help. Some bring their college-, high school- and middle school-age kids.

“Plus we’ve been very fortunate to have the [Indiana Army] National Guard consistently send out two teams of five to help with distributing, packing boxes—just whatever it takes,” Zublar notes. “They have been just fantastic.”

‘People are happy to see each other’

Still, there is the pressure on the SVdP staff and volunteers to meet the increased demand. And there is the concern of those not used to worrying about feeding themselves or their families.

“We’re all under a lot of stress and anxiety,” says Zublar.

But rather than bring out the worst in people, he has seen the situation do the opposite.

“People are just happy to see each other and happy to receive or lend support,” he says. “In that sense, it’s a stress release. You see it from the volunteers’ point of view and from those in need, to get out and to interact with others.”

He notes how often clients thank the volunteers for their help, how grateful they are that the pantry has remained open.

‘Barely able to get us where we need to be’

The need for volunteer support is “huge,” says Zublar. But it is matched by the need for “funds to make this place operate,” he adds.

“We’ve been blessed to receive generous donations that come in daily. But it’s still barely able to get us where we need to be for the current need plus the new need. Food, tents, equipment—those are all costs.”

Every day, pandemic or no pandemic, “We rely on the generosity of neighbors and supporters, and that comes in the form of volunteers and donations,” Zublar says. “We literally won’t exist without that generosity.

“And we need it now more than ever.”

(The Indianapolis Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry’s hours of distribution during the increased time of need are 8 a.m.-noon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more information on how to volunteer or donate, go to


Related: The other front line of the times: Feeding the hungry as unemployment rates soar

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