When officials at the Community Kitchen opened a satellite meal service on West 11th Street in 2001, they anticipated a decrease in the number of meals served out of their South Rogers Street kitchen, perhaps as much as 30 percent.
They had been providing free meals, no questions asked, to anyone who came in the door since Thanksgiving 1992. Logic and anecdotal evidence suggested that many of the hungry were finding their ways down to Rogers from “The Hill,” as the West 11th section of town is also known.
But Executive Director Vicki Pierce, who wasn’t there in 2001, said the conventional wisdom had to be re-evaluated after the Community Kitchen Express opened on The Hill.
“What happened is that our service numbers almost doubled in a period of a couple years,” she said.
Since then, Pierce said, Kitchen officials have sought out the hungry, and just about everywhere they have looked, they’ve found need. Four programs have been added that take meals to the hungry, mostly kids. And still, as in 2001, the number of meals served at both facilities has continued to rise.
Last year, she said, the kitchen’s 152,516 meals served through all programs set another new record.
“We have seen our numbers here and at Express, both of our permanent meal sites, go up,” she said. “We’re up all across the board.”
Community Kitchen’s trends are reflected at every agency in town that serves the hungry -- Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, Shalom Center, Hoosier Hills Food Bank, to name just the largest. The need, it seems, is insatiable, or at least immeasurable at this time.
“I've been trying to think of a good way to measure demand,” Julio Alonso, executive director at Hoosier Hills and Pierce’s predecessor at Community Kitchen, wrote in response to an e-mail question. “But I haven't come up with one yet.”
Hoosier Hills distributes food to 80-plus agencies that provide food to the hungry in six South-Central Indiana counties, including Monroe. Community Kitchen is the food bank’s second largest customer, behind Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a Bloomington food pantry.
In the food bank’s 26-year history -- from the first 70,000 pounds of food distributed in 1983 to the 1.78-million-pound peak in 2004 -- the trend has always been up.
Never, Alonso said, has the food bank experienced a glut. The periodic, short-term decreases in distributions, like the drop to 1.68 million pounds in 2005 and 1.65 million pounds in 2006, do not reflect decreased need.
“Our total food distributed is as much a measure of supply as demand,” he wrote. “It tells what we gave out, not what we could have given out had we had more food on hand.”
Which is why need is immeasurable. To date, demand has never been met, nor, reality suggests, has it ever come close to being met.
Community Kitchen operates under the same philosophy as Mother Hubbard’s with respect to need, which is what Pierce describes as the “honor system.” Clients are not asked any questions.
“We trust that, if you’re willing to walk in the door of a ‘soup kitchen,’ you need to be here,” she said.
Pierce laughs at the notion of a “soup kitchen,” since she can only remember serving soup at the Community Kitchen twice in her four years as director. “Healthy, stick-to-the-ribs” food is what the Kitchen prides itself on serving.
Alonso said Hoosier Hills’ member agencies consider the food bank out of “food” when it runs out of canned goods.
Pierce also dismisses another soup-kitchen misconception -- that healthy, able-bodied men take advantage of the agency’s don’t-ask policy.
“I would say the portion of our patrons who would be those folks who ought to be able to hold a job are few and far between,” she said.
To the contrary, data show that 41 percent of the meals the Community Kitchen serves through all of its programs go to children and 27 percent to seniors.
She adds that it is a “safe bet” that between 65 percent and 75 percent have mental issues.
But, Pierce added, in the past few months Kitchen staff has noticed an increase in the number of able-bodied individuals on South Rogers. More and more, the clients are people who have lost their jobs or, in fact, have jobs.
“We’re seeing more of those folks now than we have in the past few years,” Pierce said. “… Regular people holding down a regular job are having a much harder time making ends meet.”
Pierce and her staff are also seeing an ominous increase in another poverty demographic -- children.
Throughout its history, Community Kitchen has provided a “safe place” for clients, she said. “Even people who are paranoid can usually come here and eat without incident.”
But it is not a place where anyone would bring a child unless they had to, Pierce added.
“When I do start seeing more children here, it’s very obvious,” she said, noting the building’s capacity is 55. “At one point, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, we had nine kids in the dining room at one time.”
In addition to rising food and fuel costs and the slowing economy, Pierce points to the privatization of food stamps as a factor in the recent rise in demand.
Enabled by the Indiana Legislature, Gov. Mitch Daniels is implementing a phased program for transferring authority for food stamps, Medicaid and other poverty programs to the IBM corporation. The program began in Bloomington in March. And reports of people being kicked off the rolls for paperwork and other bureaucratic reasons are common.
Pierce said she has seen a change in patterns at the kitchen since the privatization. Historically, demand picked up around the third week of a month and grows through the end as citizens ran out of food stamps.
“We’ve seen numbers in the middle of the month look like numbers at the end of the month,” she said.
And noting that informal surveys have shown that 86 to 88 percent of kitchen clients live in the city, Pierce said she believes the actual need for food assistance will never be known.
“We’re not accessible to people in the county,” she said, referring to the rural areas of Monroe County. “… My guess is that we could put 10 more kitchens around the community and probably seven of them would be utilized.”
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.