ANDERSON — Jessica West waited outside for more than an hour in a grassy area near the former Kmart parking lot on Nichol Avenue for food during November's tailgate for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Central Indiana.
Temperatures, hovering near 40 degrees, numbed finger tips and noses, but West appeared unfazed.
“It actually feels good today,” she said turning toward Scotty Shields, a friend who was waiting with her.
“I’m immune to it,” Shields said with a shrug.
But a food shortage at Second Harvest could threaten those like West who rely on food banks and pantries to keep them from going hungry said Tim Kean, president and CEO of Second Harvest.
West is among 20,000 people in Madison County and 70,000 people in the eight-county region Second Harvest serves with food insecurities and who are dependent on food from the organization.
On Wednesday, Shields, 30, and West had commandeered a small red and black shopping cart to help them carry the food they hoped to get from the distribution back to a nearby apartment complex.
West, 26, said she does not have a car or a job and lives in the Courtyard Apartments with her mother.
“I’m actually here for my mom,” she said. “Usually my mom is out here in her wheelchair, or motor scooter, but we found a cart so we are going to use that.”
She said appreciates receiving the food given away during the tailgate.
“It helps us a lot actually,” said West. “I use a lot of it.”
West watched volunteers, armed with potatoes, non-perishables and smiles, quickly fill the backseats and trunks of the vehicles that pulled up toward a semi parked in the parking lot as she waited for her turn.
“I wait here and look at all the amazing people here who need the food,” she said nodding toward the vehicles that were parked seven deep and 15 rows across.
Kean said the tailgate is one of several distributions where the food is provided by Second Harvest. The regional warehouse distribution center provides food to 115 pantries and 20 schools in Madison, Henry, Delaware, Jay, Randolph, Blackford, Grant and Wabash counties.
“This year has been a little unique because one of the factors coming into play for us is manufacturers are becoming more efficient,” Kean said. "That’s good for them because they are improving their bottom line, but making it more difficult for us to obtain food.”
Devastation from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have also placed a toll on food supplies.
Kean said a substantial amount of food was routed to people living in the hurricane area.
“And that is OK, because it’s the right thing to do, but it puts a little more pressure on us,” he said. “We can still get food, but we have to go farther away to get it.”
Kean said the food shortage comes at a bad time with utility bills spiking in the colder months. He hopes funding can be raised to assist in restocking shelves, noting monetary donations are more beneficial to those efforts than food drives.
“When people want to help and think about doing a food drive, they go to retail stores and get one or two cans of food for $1,” Kean said. “If they would donate that dollar, we could turn it into six to eight items of food.”
Because Second Harvest is paying only for the transportation costs to obtain food nearing its shelf life, its costs to obtain large quantities of food are significantly reduced, he said.
“We are not buying food,” Kean said. “We are accessing food around the country that is going to be disposed of and getting still very nutritious food back into the system.”
He said the organization’s inventory needs to be restocked to help those who will seek assistance after the first of the year.
“I’m laying out the idea that it’s important now, but it’s probably going to be a bigger challenge after the first of the year because of the weather,” Kean said. “People will have higher heating bills and more difficulties with transportation and those kinds of weather related things.”
Joe Womack, a volunteer at Park Place Community Center Food Pantry, 802 E. Fifth St., said his job is to try and figure out how to maximize the number of people he can help with the amount of food designated for the pantry's use.The pantry receives its food from Second Harvest.
“The shortage we have now has put us in a real bind,” he said.
Womack said the pantry averages 72 or 73 family visits a day.
“That’s about 350 to 375 families a week,” he said. “Once a family is in the system, they can come every two weeks.”
Duane Hoak, who volunteers with Womack at the pantry, said a person in need can use the pantry every other week, but most can’t live on the food from one site alone.
“Nobody is going away from any of these pantries with more than two or three days of food so they have to go to pantry, to pantry to pantry to survive the month,” Hoak said. “The number of people who use the pantry are down compared to a year ago, but the problem we are having is the amount of food we are able to get from Second Harvest has dropped precipitously.”
“We don’t have enough food to give to the people who come as compared to last year.”
People like West say they are dependent on a secondary source to keep food in their cupboards.
West said while her mother receives public assistance, they often attend the tailgate distribution.
“Whenever it comes in and if we get a chance, we get what we can,” she said.