Notre Dame, others join to fight rising local hunger

Author: Erin Blasko

by Erin Blasko

Attention around the coronavirus has focused primarily on case numbers and deaths since the start of the pandemic, as officials at the local, state and federal levels race to control the virus and conserve medical resources until vaccines and treatments are more widely available.

Behind the scenes, however, a coalition of local public, private and nonprofit organizations, including Cultivate Food Rescue, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, the city of South Bend and South Bend Venues Parks and Arts, the South Bend Community School Corp., the United Way of St. Joseph County, enFocus and the University of Notre Dame, has been working to address a less obvious, but no less urgent consequence of the pandemic: growing hunger in the community.

According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, 50.4 million Americans experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020, a consequence of economic disruptions and related job losses tied to the pandemic. That’s an increase of 13.2 million Americans compared with 2018, including 5.8 million children. 

In response, the Health Improvement Alliance of St. Joseph County, in partnership with Cultivate, established the Emergency Food Initiative in March as a way to support food security in South Bend and the surrounding area and negotiate the complexity of that task during the pandemic. The group is on Facebook at facebook.com/EFIStJoeCounty.

The group started with the goal of stockpiling 45,000 meals in the case of a catastrophic food emergency. It has since moved on to other tasks, including improved communication and cooperation among local food security organizations and better planning and logistics.

“There have been movements in this direction for a long time; we know none of us exist in a bubble here,” said Jim Baxter, coordinator of the Health Improvement Alliance. “But I think it was the opportunity to coalesce around the need as elevated by the pandemic that got this group together.”

The group, which also includes Real Services, St. Vincent de Paul, J2 Marketing, the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County and the South Bend Regional Chamber, meets once per week to share updates and discuss planning and logistics.

“It’s an opportunity for us to update each other on what we’re doing, offer help to others who need it and communicate where we can partner to reduce overlap, streamline communications and be as effective and efficient as possible with our outreach,” said Lainie Holland, project coordinator with Cultivate, which provides meals to schoolchildren and helps coordinate food to pantries in the tri-county area with support from Notre Dame and other public, private and nonprofit partners.

Through years of experience in the local food security community, members bring critical knowledge to the group, both about the landscape here and hunger more generally.

“You can have a question and somebody in the group will either give you the answer or find that answer,” said Sue Zumbrun, with Clay Church Food Pantry in South Bend. “It’s incredible. You don’t have to make a million phone calls to connect with someone who’s already very busy.”

Through conversations with group members, Zumbrun learned about a free source of bread, saving Clay $1 to $2 per loaf. Cultivate routinely lends its truck and driver to members to help with food deliveries and pickups. Members share storage space.

Early on, the group developed an inventory tracking system to provide organizations and individuals that fund and supply local food pantries with ongoing information about the status of different food items, changes in demand for items and impact on demand from various federal programs.

Danielle Wood, with the Notre Dame Center for Civic Innovation, and Mat Sisk, with Notre Dame’s Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship, developed the system with leadership from Zumbrun, a member of the United Way’s People Gotta Eat coalition.

More than 22 pantries were invited to share data weekly about availability of different food groups to a collective dashboard. This has helped funders and suppliers, including Cultivate, Purdue Extension and the United Way, determine and track need and respond accordingly.

“This has been a difficult time for the pantries, with a lot of demand on their resources at the same time they were losing some of their volunteers,” said Wood. “By getting the pantry manager’s perspective — an expert like Sue — we tried to design something that was minimally demanding to fill out.”

EnFocus, a local innovation organization supported by Notre Dame, is working to merge some of the data from the inventory tracking system into a searchable food pantry map so that it is more accessible to pantry workers and the public, including pantry users and local neighbors who wish to donate to pantries.

“It’s been a huge benefit,” Zumbrun said of the tracking system, praising the ability to track supply and demand for food across the community in close to real time.

Beyond planning and logistics, the group serves as a support network for members, for whom the pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of work-related stress, anxiety, exhaustion and even trauma.

“So much of the initiative is weekly conversations about what is needed,” said Maxx Hamm, an enFocus fellow. “But a lot of it is the emotional and tangible support we’ve been providing to each other, because there’s so much increased need and tension in the community in general.”

Recalled Zumbrun, “I think I even broke down in a meeting one day because it’s just so hard not being able to help as much as you want to. It’s hard work because you’re dealing with people’s lives and stories.

“It is helpful to have that outlet,” Zumbrun continued. “I have to be strong for my volunteers, so it’s nice to be with other leaders and be vulnerable sometimes.”

According to Feeding America, the current crisis is expected to last well beyond the pandemic, as the economy struggles to restart after months of recurring pauses and lockdowns.

“We plan to go beyond the pandemic to reduce food insecurity in our community,” said Jim Conklin, board president of Cultivate. “The economic consequences from the pandemic will last well beyond the current crisis of the pandemic, and we hope to continue to collaborate and have a unified approach to help community members in need.”

In the meantime, the group hopes to address the causes and consequences of hunger and other problems through improved access to existing services and resources and improved communication and cooperation among local nonprofits.

“We’re focused primarily on the food issue, but while doing that we’re encountering so many other needs,” said Holland, from renters battling eviction, to job seekers stuck without transportation, to parents desperate for reliable childcare. “We refer people to United Way’s 211 number where community members can get information on how to get help on all of these items.”

Zumbrun, for her part, noticed while putting food into people’s cars that children were not always properly seated in the back. She talked to Baxter, the Health Improvement Alliance coordinator, who told her about an organization that offers free car seats and car seat safety classes. She now refers parents to the organization.

Baxter imagines more such collaboration in the future.

“We have plenty to do,” he said.

Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127, eblasko@nd.edu