Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana started in 1983 in a small portion of a Lincoln Financial Corp. warehouse downtown and moved the next year to a nearby city building the agency's current leader describes as “scary.”
Walk into the client entrance now at Community Harvest, 999 E. Tillman Road, and it seems like stepping into a budget grocery store.
Shiny dairy and freezer cases stand straight ahead, along with shelves holding bread and other perishable items. Bins contain a variety of produce. To the right, long rows of metal shelving hold everything from dry cereal and pasta to canned goods.
Change has been a constant as Community Harvest tries to meet the needs of the people it serves.
The nonprofit will celebrate its 30th anniversary and raise money to continue its work at a gala March 9 at Hotel Fort Wayne (formerly the Fort Wayne Marriott) on Washington Center Road.
When local organizers founded Community Harvest, they expected it to operate for less than two years to help people through hard times after International Harvester shut down its massive operations in Fort Wayne, Executive Director Jane Avery said.
But hunger has remained an ongoing problem.
Community Harvest has stuck to its mission — “to alleviate hunger through the full use of donated food and other resources.” But the way the food bank carries out that mission has changed dramatically.
About 50 percent of its clients now get food directly from Community Harvest and its outreach programs rather than from a neighborhood food bank or other resource, said Avery, who has led the nonprofit since July 1996.
“I think we are on the cusp of what more food banks are going to be,” she said.
Two factors have had major influence on the shift to direct service to consumers:
•With fewer people becoming clergy and many older neighborhood food bank volunteers retiring, there are fewer houses of worship with food banks and fewer volunteers to staff them, Avery said.
•Americans have shifted toward eating healthier foods, which makes more of those foods available to food banks, Avery said.
Community Harvest, for example, gets frequent donations of fresh produce and other food from the Walmart distribution center in the Auburn-Garrett area, she said.
Once perishable food arrives, the fastest way to get it to people in need is to do it directly — especially with items such as produce and dairy products, Avery said.
That's one reason Community Harvest has been open on Saturdays since 2003, she said. It seems to work: In the last seven months, Saturday clients have picked up about 500,000 pounds of produce.
Community Harvest also has enhanced its Community Cupboard grocery on site and has expanded food distribution to seniors, children and others through outreach like its SeniorPak, Kids Cafe and Farm Wagon programs, she said.
The Kids Cafe program helps Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne feed a combined total of 300 children daily during after-school programs at three sites — the main building on Fairfield Avenue and at the McCormick Place and Brookmill Court apartment complexes, said Joe Jordan, Boys & Girls Clubs executive director.
“It is a huge partnership for us,” Jordan said.
Along with providing food, Community Harvest staff members also help with menu planning so the children receive a healthy, well-balanced meal, he said.
Based on estimates from agencies providing emergency hunger assistance, Community Harvest now serves at least 21,100 people a week in Allen and eight other counties in northeast Indiana, Avery said. That works out to about 90,000 unduplicated clients a year.
Community Harvest focuses on helping the working poor — people who make 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines or less — because they don't qualify for much government help, she said.
The 185 percent income level equates to about $43,500 per year for a family of four, Avery said. Unlike in the past, however, when one member of the household may have earned that total with a full-time job with health and other benefits, today's working poor typically have two people working part time to make the $43,500, and they have no health benefits.
They never have a chance to build a nest egg or to get ahead, she said. If Community Harvest can offset some of the family's expenses by supplying them with food, it can make a big impact.
That impact also extends through food banks operated by churches and other organizations, which stock their shelves with food from Community Harvest.
“It is very beneficial for us to use Community Harvest,” said Jack Davis, co-director with Phyllis Mort of the Light of the Cross food bank in the 2900 block of South Anthony Boulevard.
With a very limited budget, being able to buy meat from Community Harvest for 19 cents per pound is a great help, Davis said. Bread and similar perishables are free, and produce is about 9 cents per pound.
Their ministry, which serves 120 to 130 families per month, also receives donated food from several churches and gets additional items as a member of the Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County food bank system.
Avery expects Community Harvest's role and services to continue evolving to meet clients' needs.
For example, in summer 2014, the agency hopes to open an operation to blanch and freeze produce so it can be preserved longer, Avery said.
Food banks like Community Harvest also will play a larger role in disaster relief efforts, she said, supplying organizations like the American Red Cross with food, water, paper products, cleaning supplies and other items to distribute to disaster victims.