Monroe County residents struggling with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic are receiving a helping hand with free meals through a grassroots initiative started by an Indiana University Bloomington employee.
Nichelle Whitney, senior assistant director in the IU Office of Admissions, created the Monroe County Food Train, which involves volunteers and community partners providing food to those in need.
It started out providing food to low-income K-12 students in the Monroe County Community School Corp. after the school district switched to remote learning, because Whitney was concerned about the students who had been receiving free meals at school. However, the effort has grown as word has spread and now assists anyone who is having trouble putting food on the table.
"We decided that since everyone is in this crisis together, we would open our services to anyone who requested food," Whitney said.
Monroe County Food Train has served about 4,200 hot meals and 1,400 nonperishable meals since its first delivery March 17, Whitney said. Orders for meals can be placed on the Monroe County Food Train website.
Monroe County Community School Corp. announced the switch to remote learning in early March, and its school buses have been running normal routes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to deliver food to those in need. Monroe County Food Train complemented that schedule with deliveries on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As word spread about the food train's efforts, others such as the elderly and those caring for disabled family members, reached out for help. To better coordinate and tailor its service, Monroe County Food Train now makes deliveries once a week on Fridays to residences that have placed orders through the website.
Such an effort wouldn't be possible without the aid of willing partners from IU and the community, Whitney said.
"It has just been phenomenal," she said of the assistance she's received.
Some local restaurants have donated hot meals. Whitney also contacted the Kelley Office of Diversity Initiatives within the Kelley School of Business, and director Carmund White jumped on board immediately.
He said few needs are more fundamental than food, and it can be easy to forget there are people in Bloomington who don't know the source of their next meal.
"The Monroe County Food Train has been able to feed hundreds of families; this means that people's lives have been improved, sustained," White said.
The Kelley Office of Diversity Initiatives made one of the first contributions, giving $1,000 worth of groceries, as well as college readiness material for students to consider attending the Kelley School of Business.
"It was important for us because we are invested in this community, and we want to see students and families who could be walking through our doors in any given year surviving and thriving," White said.
His office also has contributed volunteers, such as assistant director Maqubè Reese, who helps with the grocery shopping, sorting and bagging of food, and delivery.
"My reason for joining this initiative was because my local community is essential to me personally, and I would ask, 'Why not give back?'" Reese said. "Financial assistance is always helpful, and KODI had an opportunity to donate. Volunteering was a natural reaction to serve our community."
She praised Whitney's efforts.
"Her service to the Bloomington community and focus on the under-resourced community is remarkable, and exactly what we need during COVID-19 and post-pandemic," Reese said.
Monroe County Food Train has received additional assistance, including a $5,750 grant from the United Way of Monroe County's Emergency Relief Fund, Whitney said. Such funding has helped her and the volunteers buy nonperishable food items, such as rice, canned goods and snacks for children, to deliver as bags of groceries.
"That has helped sustain us through today, as well as other community members who gave to the project as well," she said.
Shatoyia Moss, Bloomington's Safe and Civil City director, has volunteered with Monroe County Food Train from the start.
"I said, 'This is great. Tell me how I can help,'" she said.
Moss said one of her strengths is logistics for large events, so she helps with buying and delivering food.
Volunteers meet Friday mornings at the Kroger by College Mall to buy groceries and then sort them for delivery.
City Church for All Nations has provided volunteers and transportation for picking up and delivering food. And one of its members led an effort to sew facemasks to be given to people who want them when the food is delivered, Whitney said.
And because of Whitney's role in college admissions, she also includes college readiness packets to help high school students prepare for college during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although MCCSC announced that the last day of instruction will be May 7, meal service will continue through May 22, the original last day of school, said Hattie Johnson, the school district's director of nutrition services. However, Whitney said the school district has asked Monroe County Food Train to provide food for qualifying students for a little longer because the school's USDA Summer Food Service Program doesn't start until May 26. If funding allows for it, assistance will be extended until then, she added.