United Against Hunger

Building a Better Normal: United Against Hunger
“When the pandemic started there was so much uncertainty, so much fear. One thing I was absolutely certain of was that we were going to be needed more than ever,” reflected Julio Alonso, Executive Director of Hoosier Hills Food Bank at the “United Against Hunger” August Wake Up! with United Way panel discussion.  “Knowing that schools were closed and they’re the first line of defense against child hunger, the need for food was going to increase dramatically.”
As our community responded to COVID-19, making sure that individuals and families affected by the pandemic had enough food was a priority. Providers, volunteers, and funders who work to ensure people in our community don’t go hungry all stepped up to meet this need.
Panelists including Alonso; Abby Ang, Community Organizer of the Monroe County Area Mutual Aid; Vicki Pierce, Executive Director of Community Kitchen; and Nichelle Whitney, Creator of the Monroe County Food Train spoke about adaptations that were made, how they were implemented, and how our community’s food security network has changed.
When the pandemic started there was a mix of long-established food providers that quickly pivoted their traditional services and newer organizations that came together in response to the new needs.  

Nichelle Whitney founded the Monroe County Meal Train in the first days of the pandemic. This grassroots effort was led by a group of volunteers and community partners in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Food Train delivered hot meals and non-perishable food items to under-resourced communities across Monroe County that would otherwise experience food scarcity.   

Whitney remarked, “Our volunteers were going into neighborhoods with decorated cars. We wanted to disrupt the feelings of fear and uncertainty. And also, be the eyes on the ground making sure that people were safe and felt connected.   
One of my biggest concerns was that people would lose touch with each other, lose connection with community. How do you make sure that people don’t lose connection? So many were facing food insecurity for the first time, losing jobs, needing help with rent,” shared Abby Ang, Community Organizer.  

As an early response to the pandemic, Ang started the Monroe County Area Mutual Aid network with the goal of fostering collective solidarity that provides care for the most sick and vulnerable people in our community and finding strength together in order to push back against the broader social narrative of individualistic self-reliance and preparedness.

Vickie Pierce, Executive Director of Community Kitchen relayed, “We made early decisions about programs and staff with an emphasis on caring for our patrons and staff. We had early conversations with MCCSC... Do we need to start our summer food program early? How can we continue the backpack buddy programs even though we can’t be in schools?”

Community Kitchen provides free nutritious meals to anyone in need six days a week, nutrition education, and referrals to other agencies. They also have programs targeting at-risk children and youth, taking meals and healthy snacks to them where they are.

She spoke about the teamwork between local food serving agencies. “People providing food were meeting via Zoom weekly. Checking in on who was doing what, what did we need to be worried about. The pivotal piece was learning that transmitting the virus through food was not a danger – not a mode of transmission.” She continued, “Early one we made the call that we’re here, we’re not leaving, we’re taking care of one another and our patrons.”

Alonso shared that he and his team looked internally first wondering how long they could keep serving their mission. There was uncertainty about how generous people might be, how they could keep their staff safe, and how to get food safely to people. In response, the Food Bank had to move away from offering a choice of food to people and instead made a shift to pre-boxed food.  

Hoosier Hills Food Bank collects, stores, and distributes food to non-profit agencies that feed the hungry in Brown, Lawrence, Orange, Owen, Martin, and Monroe counties in Indiana.

With their volunteer base of 2,000 no longer able to assist, the National Guard was deployed to help. They also couldn’t rely on donated food and made a shift to purchasing food. He commented, “It took the community coming together with both new grassroots organizations and longstanding organizations working hand-in-hand.”

Reflecting on the past year and a half, Pierce noted, “The sophistication and teamwork that exists in our community is very strong -- the awareness our community has, the caring in our community of literally trying to reach everyone who was having this issue.”

“The pandemic exposed food inequities,” shared Whitney. “Further reinforcing inequities is that people seeking food do not always have healthy options. I would like to see our community get out of the mindset of “take what we give you.’”

Alonso added, “So many people in our community do not make a living wage. People were pushed into food insecurity.”  

Ang reflected that Mutual Aid was able to create relationships with local agencies. “We helped make connections between Pantry 279 and Civic Champs Helping Hands -- connecting people who are homebound with volunteers who can deliver food boxes made for them by Pantry 279.”

When asked how the community can help alleviate hunger, Alonso encouraged everyone to donate, advocate, and volunteer. To support organizations financially and with volunteer time. And advocacy is crucial, “Vote, pay attention, challenge elected officials about food security and livable wages, make your voice known.”

Pierce shared, “Our primary population is seniors, children, and people with chronic mental issues. Without systemic changes, things are not going to be better for many people we serve. Right now, we’re taking care of symptoms, but we need to get to the root cause. We need people to provide food, but we also need leaders and elected officials to do their part of looking at why we have food deserts, and then creating policies and practices to disrupt that.”





Wake Up! with United Way is a collaborative project of United Way of Monroe County and IU’s Political and Civic Engagement Program. The series is made possible by the following sponsors:


Premier Series Sponsor

Bloomington Township


Presenting Sponsors

Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County
IU Credit Union
Program Sponsors
Duke Energy
Old National Bank