Demand for food has exceeded ready supply as the northeast Indiana has retreated into isolation amid fear of the COVID-19 virus.
Both the region and the nation struggle to protect public health and to ensure supplies during the pandemic. That health threat has brought wholesale buying and created shortages. Students forced to stay home during school closures have diverted family budgets to groceries instead of school lunches. Grocery stores have exhausted supplies, posted apologies, restocked shelves, posted limits and restocked again.
Restaurants, forced to abandon dine-in service because of the already familiar social distancing, have stepped up carryout service and curbside handoffs, even delivery. Fort Wayne’s Downtown Improvement District has partnered with Waiter on the Way to boost the dozens of restaurants in that 99-city-block alliance. Restaurants beyond that district have posted new signs, added curbside staff, saturated social media and hoped for the best. Curbside business has kept many restaurant phones ringing. At family-owned restaurants where “catch your breath” is written in invisible ink across the anything/anytime menus, the loyalty did not in all cases transfer to grab-and-go meals. “It just didn’t work,” said an owner who attempted the strategy for one frustrating lunch hour.
Schools closed down March 13, with promises of reopening in early or mid-April. On March 16, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered that all schools — public and private — close until at least May 1. The decision offered no assurance that schools would close on that date or even this academic year, as health and school officials find themselves in an uncertainty unknown to another recent generation.
Holcomb’s orders to the schools was part of broader steps to limit spread of the virus. Large gatherings are prohibited. The Indiana National Guard is activated and available to assist during this public health emergency. Government boards are free to conduct meetings by telephone.
Based on guidance from President Trump and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Allen County Department of Health acted Saturday to limit meetings to groups of 10 or fewer.
Students forced to stay away from schools could not go to day-care centers, which faced their own challenges. Older students could not go to restaurants, which were closed. Families, instead, added to the demand at grocery stores. Just two weeks earlier, those shelves, displays, coolers and freezers had served a steady supply to a steady demand. Shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer morphed from disappointment to resignation. First bread and milk proved hard to find, then potatoes and meat — especially meat. None of this or that at times, just signs pronouncing the limits on whatever had occupied that space. Stores cut hours to allow more time for restocking. Groceries advertised for short-term help.
The schools, too, have shared in the response. Allen County’s four public school districts set times for families to pick up meals. They issued news releases, posted the rules online, or sent digital newsletters to district families. Each announcement juggled the same language, balancing welfare and other practical needs. The fixes were created overnight, and some adjustments soon followed.
As of March 23, Southwest Allen County Schools would no longer offer meals during the evening. Instead, each student could pick up two meals from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Meals would continue to be handed out at Homestead High School. Deliveries also would be made to neighborhood clubhouses at Preston Pointe at Inverness, Hamilton Pointe Apartments, Woodlake Estates, Chestnut Hills Apartments, Liberty Mills Apartments, Willows Apartments and Hunt Club Apartments. Get details at sacs.k12.in.us.
“The beauty of this resolution is now we have a fleet of bus drivers that we can call on to say ‘Hey, we need you to run a route of lunches to this location,’ ” Superintendent Phil Downs told the School Board last week. “We should be in a very good position for distribution.”
Fort Wayne Community Schools would provide free meals for all children, regardless of where they attend schools, ages birth through high school. FWCS distributes breakfast and lunch packs from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. daily at all 32 FWCS elementary schools. Get details at fwcs.k12.in.us.
East Allen County Schools is providing breakfast and lunch to all EACS students and anyone in the sprawling EACS community who is 18 or under. Cold packs can be picked up from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. Tuesdays at Heritage K-12, Southwick Elementary and New Haven Intermediate School. Get details at eacs.k12.in.us.
Northwest Allen County Community Schools is providing daily breakfast and lunches for students in need. Meals are available for pickup Mondays-Fridays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. at Huntertown Elementary School and Carroll High School. Get details at nacs.k12.in.us.
Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation partnered with Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana to provide meals for school-age youth, K-12th grade. Meals can be picked up Monday through Friday, 4 p.m.-5 p.m., at Cooper, Jennings, McMillen and Weisser community centers. The meals are first-come, first-served.
Fort Wayne’s Farmers Market worked to comply with evolving health codes. The Saturday morning market at Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field arranged for “a respectable amount of personal space” for vendors and patrons. The market also prohibited sampling of foods and required tablecloths or other surfaces that could be cleaned regularly. Facebook visitors were relieved to be assured that the market will continue as a year-round source of fresh produce and other specialty foods.
Community Harvest Food Bank, which is involved in many food distribution efforts in Allen County, put out a call for volunteers at its 999 E. Tillman Road warehouse and distribution center.
“We have been making changes to our programs in an effort to improve safety and avoid excessive personal contact,” the food bank said on its website.
That site also offered, “We are extremely grateful and humbled by the supportive messages and emails we’ve received from community members over the past few days. This local/regional/national/worldwide crisis we find ourselves in now is unprecedented, and seeing the generosity of the community opening their hearts to support each other during this time is something truly amazing.”
Community Harvest said monetary donations are especially important at the moment, and directed the public to communityharvest.org. Financial donations free the giver from exposure to crowds, result in greater buying power, and reduce the number of people touching the food, the agency said.
For those who prefer to give food, Community Harvest suggests peanut butter, canned protein, canned fruits and canned vegetables. Empty cardboard boxes, plastic bags and disposable eating utensils also are on the priority list.
Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County provides food at 25 local food pantries in churches and social agencies. Emergency distributions are available once each month. Visit associatedchurches.org for information on qualifying or donating.
Trinity English Lutheran Church in downtown Fort Wayne is another familiar source of food for those in special need. The church has joined Community Harvest in distributing groceries while continuing its Thursday night community dinner.
This past Thursday, however, meals were distributed outside, in the shelter of the porte cochere. Trinity staff, parishioners and volunteers presented the bagged meals. The guests who usually share dinner at the tables of Wagenhals Hall maintained 6-foot spacing as they accepted the meals that they would eat elsewhere.
It was the second food-related outreach of the day at Trinity. Applicants signed up Thursday for groceries to be distributed Friday. Janet Altmeyer, city ministries coordinator, stood just inside the outer doors, speaking with visitors who entered one at a time and stood several feet away.
“We’re just sharing a bit of food assistance,” she told one person who is out of work because of COVID-19 shutdowns. “It’s a makeshift situation where we’re following all the rules about distancing but still trying to get people food.”
She said the applicant would receive 25 pounds of food on Friday; she explained that Community Harvest requires vouchers for this special distribution. “This will not affect our regular 4-month process once we get back to normal,” she said.
She said she looks forward to returning to the customary process “where we welcome people in and we shake hands and we pray together and we talk about community resources and we really spend what we hope is quality time with people ... and feel God’s presence and peace and compassion.”
The Indiana State Department of Health on Sunday reported 76 new positive cases of COVID-19, bringing to 201 the number of Hoosiers diagnosed to date. That total includes four in Allen County. Four Hoosiers have died.