INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - On a recent Thursday morning, about a dozen volunteers hustled through a small church kitchen, the scents of vegetable soup and freshly brewed coffee mixing in the air. The room was silent but for the rustling of grocery bags and the occasional thud of a can hitting a table.
Three days a week, volunteers gather at The Church Within near Fountain Square with a common goal: feeding their neighbors.
The No Questions Asked Food Pantry was born of necessity - Satch Cole, a community activist, saw the 2018 government shutdown hitting Hoosiers hard, some of whom had likely never before relied on food assistance.
So, Cole started putting calls out to the community on social media: Who has food and hygiene products to donate? Do you have a space we can operate out of? Does anyone have a fridge or freezer we could use?
What began as an effort to feed a few dozen at a time continued long after the shutdown ended, and has boomed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Because there are no questions, the pantry doesn’t keep track of repeat visitors. However, records indicate it has provided enough food for 3,500 grocery kits. And so far, it’s been done entirely through crowd-sourcing.
And Cole has partnered with organizations including Indy10 Black Lives Matter, Queering Indy, Indy Pride and Indy Feminists to pull it off.
“So far,” Cole told IndyStar, “everything has been done by community members donating.”
That includes operating out of donated spaces, like church kitchens and sanctuaries that had otherwise only been used for services.
The pantry found its first home at All Souls Unitarian Church, where it was provided pantry space, a refrigerator and freezer for free. Cole figured that once the shutdown was over, the small group of volunteers would go back to other community activism. But the need persisted, long after the government reopened.
“And then COVID happened,” Cole said, “and the whole world changed.”
Cole has been providing some form of food aid to neighbors in need for years, but this iteration of the pantry got its start during the 2018 government shutdown, when thousands were furloughed or laid off and continued funding for federal nutrition assistance programs was in jeopardy.
There were times Cole has relied on food pantries. And Cole knows the hoops families have to jump through to provide identification, proof of residency and income.
“I remember going to food pantries and having to have all kinds of paperwork and having to prove all kinds of things, just to get some generic cereal and some soup,” Cole said. “It just kind of makes you feel less-than.”
So, Cole set out to create a space where none of that mattered. Where someone facing hunger would be fed - No Questions Asked.
Evren Elliott, a volunteer at No Questions Asked, a food pantry started by Satch Cole, bags up items for a family, Indianapolis, Thursday, May 21, 2020. The pantry, which has operated out of several locations, is currently at The Church Within, at 1125 Spruce Street, and offers food and diapers, as well as cleaning supplies, tampons, condoms, and other personal and household items through a drive up service three days a week.
Concerns about the coronavirus spurred a move to The Church Within, where No Questions Asked has taken over the sanctuary, kitchen and common area as worship services have paused due to the virus.
Since March, the pantry has seen a significant increase in demand - Cole said the pantry has gone from providing enough food for 50 to 100 grocery kits on a busy week to as many as 600.
Volunteers serve drive-through and walk-up patrons, those who have kitchens and those who don’t. They won’t turn away unaccompanied minors. For those who can’t make it in person, they’ll deliver a box of groceries to their door.
Once silent, the church came alive when cars started trickling into the parking lot.
Pantry manager Angie Gordon said she was laid off from her food-service job in mid-March and joined No Questions Asked shortly thereafter. She runs the pantry like she would a restaurant, calling out family sizes like tickets in a kitchen. The volunteers, some of whom also worked in the restaurant industry, respond in kind.
All right, fours are working, we got ones out, so we need - did somebody call the two?
Called a two, and then I got a three.
The no-contact service requires one runner between the building and a line of cars in the parking lot. The runner - typically Gordon - will approach the car, ask how many people are in the family, if there are any dietary requirements and if there are infants. They relay that information to the team of volunteers inside, who quickly assemble bags of groceries and warm meals to be placed in the trunk of the car.
Each family member receives a protein, two carbs, two vegetables, one fruit and one miscellaneous item for their pantry and a pre-packaged hot meal. Cleaning products and hygiene kits are made available, as well as diapers, wipes, formula and baby food.
“I want people who don’t experience food insecurity to understand that a lot more people than they think do (need food assistance), do,” Gordon said. “And it might be your next door neighbor, and you don’t know.”
As a child’s toy sang the alphabet in the background, Itzel Maldonado explained that she was collecting food for her family and for her mother, having discovered No Questions Asked via Facebook. It was her first time visiting the pantry.
“I try not to go anywhere,” she said, “but I’d rather myself go out than my mom, because she’s much older.”
Gordon said she talks to at least one visitor a day who says they’ve never had to visit a pantry before. At a time of such great need, it feels good to be able to give back.
“I adore this work, I feel called to do it,” Gordon said. “My favorite thing to do is to feed people, and I get to do that here.”
Cole isn’t sure what will come after COVID passes and the church reopens to worshipers. Cole hopes the pantry will eventually find a building and home of its own. And thanks to an incoming grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation, volunteers will be able to buy even more food and hygiene items to supplement donations.
Beyond food resources, there are tables lined with deodorant, soaps, lotion, pads, tampons and razors where volunteers assemble hygiene kits for distribution. Cases of bottled water, bags of dog food, stacks of diapers are sorted into piles on the floor. If needed, there are Narcan kits, syringes and condoms.
Cole is no stranger to community activism.
In recent years, Cole has become known for working with Indy10 Black Lives Matter, DONT SLEEP, IMPD Transparency, posting salary and citizen complaint information of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officers.
Cole sees it as a responsibility to hold those in power accountable and to be an agent of change as the city grapples with issues like food insecurity, violence and homelessness.
“Just because the system is broken doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to fix it,” Cole said. “The systems have been created by people and it’s people that need to fix these broken systems.”
Much of Cole’s work is motivated by the loss of Aaron Bailey, who in June 2017 was shot and killed by two IMPD officers. In the weeks and months after Bailey’s death, Cole grew close with his family. That experience has changed the way Cole approached activism.
Though there are some in the community who would openly criticize Cole, that wouldn’t get them turned away from the pantry.
“You might not support my Black Lives Matter work, you might not support my police accountability work, you might not agree with the ways that I do things, and that’s OK,” Cole said, “if you need food, come and get it.”
No Questions Asked Food Pantry
Where: The Church Within, 1125 Spruce St.
When: Distribution is noon to 2 p.m. every Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
How to help: Food, cleaning supplies, hygiene items and infant care products can be dropped off at Project Lia (1125 Brookside Avenue #CO1) from noon to 3 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays or at The Church Within from noon to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more information, visit the pantry’s Facebook page: facebook.com/NoQuestionsAskedFoodPantry.
Source: The Indianapolis Star
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