COVID-19 is calling attention to food insecurity in Fort Wayne—and inspiring solutions

Empty shelves at the grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic are a painful reminder that some Northeast Indiana residents live with food insecurity and inaccessibility on a daily basis.

So during a crisis that makes foods like chicken hard to come by for everyone, where are the city's most vulnerable residents finding food assistance?

In the first two weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, several organizations, both public and private, have stepped up to lessen the burden for families who may have difficulty getting to the store or knowing where their next meal is coming from.

Despite its school buildings being closed, Fort Wayne Community Schools remains committed to serving the needs of its families. On March 17, more than 3,000 breakfasts and lunches were served across the community. Additionally, FWCS staff members packed more than 2,000 bags for the Blessings in a Backpack program to make sure students at Adams, Abbett, Fairfield, South Wayne, Study, and Washington elementary schools still have their weekend food.

In addition to the efforts that school systems have made to serve their students during COVID-19, nonprofits like Wellspring Interfaith Social Services are looking to bridge the gap of food insecurity, too. Executive Director Melissa Rinehart, Ph.D., says hunger that is ever-present in our community—and it disproportionately affects children and older adults.

Although Wellspring has temporarily suspended their standard programming, Rinehart says the need for feeding Fort Wayne's most vulnerable residents hasn’t gone away. That’s why they’ve recently expanded their Wellspring on Wheels program—essentially a mobile food pantry—to include more sites along with keeping their on-site food bank stocked and operational during the COVID-19 shutdown.

On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, FWCS served breakfast and lunch to over 3,000 children while the schools were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So how great is the need for food in Fort Wayne? The numbers speak for themselves.

Rinehart says the total number of emergency cases they’ve encountered at the Wellspring food pantry has gone up 245 percent over the last couple of weeks with COVID-19. Their Wellspring on Wheels sites have been flooded with requests, as well. Rinehart estimates the need has risen by as much as 150 percent in less than a month.

If there’s one takeaway, it’s that the pandemic has exposed inequities, vulnerabilities, and inefficiencies that were always there. They’re just more magnified now. Hunger and food insecurity are no exceptions.

Back in 2015, about 14 percent of Allen County residents were considered “food insecure,” according to data from Feeding America cited in a report by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. Statistics like these come as no surprise to people like Rinehart, who is a cultural anthropologist by trade.

“It's an omnipresent issue, and it's unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like this to reveal to the public the size and scope of the issue,” she says. “But those of us who work in this industry, we already knew this to be true.”

And as COVID-19 exposes the extent of local food insecurity, it’s not just nonprofits who are filling gaps in the community either. Tabitha Gray, the owner of Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders on West Coliseum Boulevard, says she's felt a calling to help families by offering free lunches to school-aged children.

As she puts it, she sees herself in the kids whose families struggle with food insecurity.

“I remember when I was 7 or 8, our school temporarily closed for some reason,” Gray says. “ And I remember that I was hungry because I was one of these kids who depended on their school for meals.”

So when she heard Fort Wayne Community Schools was closing sites temporarily, she knew in her heart that lending a hand was the right thing to do, despite the pressure that the shutdown is putting on restaurants. Gray estimates she’s given away more than 200 meals in 10 days of COVID-19—passing them out in bags with words of encouragement hand-written on the front. 

She says the experience has been gratifying and humbling. But it hasn’t come without its challenges. For example, it can be difficult to manage giving out free lunches when she needs to serve paying customers for carryout at the same time. But for the most part, people have been patient and understanding.

“I can't even put into words how many amazing people have walked through my doors in the last two weeks,” she says. “I can’t even count the number of times I've cried because of the generosity of the customers.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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