By Sherri Coner
Time flies when big-hearted people commit to providing food security for Johnson County residents.
Sometimes the helpers are so busy with food drives, organizing shelves and meeting community needs that they barely notice 40 years flying by.
That is the story of the Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County, its long list of devoted volunteers and the 40-year anniversary of making sure every kitchen in the county has tomorrow’s groceries in the fridge and today’s food on the table.
More than 125 guests gathered at the pantry on Aug. 12 to celebrate this 40-year labor of love. While public pantry tours were available, guests also enjoyed cake and fellowship.
Everyone celebrated well deserved recognition for Carol Phipps of Indianapolis, the pantry’s executive director since 2012.
Celebrating an honor
Two members of the pantry’s board nominated Phipps for the Sagamore of the Wabash, a prestigious award honoring an individual’s commitment to supporting their community.
“Our board president Phil Howard recognized the honor of the Sagamore of the Wabash,” said Liz Bush Cooper, a three-year board member and a three-year pantry volunteer. “Carol is so deserving and that’s not only for her work with the pantry, either. She is also involved with other organizations in Johnson County.”
In Gov. Eric Holcomb’s absence, Indiana State Representative Robb Greene traveled to Franklin to personally present the award to Phipps.
“I was totally surprised and honored to be presented with the Sagamore of the Wabash award,” Phipps said. “I’m still in awe of the honor.”
Looking back at the humble history of the pantry and comparing it to where the pantry functions today is an impressive picture.
In 1983, longtime Franklin residents, Eddy Teets and Rev. Roger Gifford anticipated an increase in the county’s population. These community advocates also realized that in the event of a crisis for any family or neighborhood, a just-in-case safety net was necessary. And it should be filled with nonperishable food items.
The pantry officially began in a basement closet at the First Baptist Church in Franklin.
Since then, the county population has steadily increased, just as Teets and Gifford expected.
In some ways, that increase has been more of a population boom.
Through all the years of growing pains across the county, food security has remained a primary concern.
As the need grew, the pantry size was inadequate.
After a couple of temporary pantry moves in earlier years, more square feet and a permanent home was secured in 2015 on Commerce Drive in Franklin.
A large, easily accessible parking area surrounds the sprawling space.
Traffic along Commerce Drive isn’t congested, and volunteers have plenty of space to comfortably unload trucks or skids, organize food items and stock shelves.
Prepared for a pandemic
As it turned out, the Commerce Drive location could not have been more perfect when the pandemic dangerously affected families across the nation.
Of course, Johnson County residents were also affected.
Thinking fast on their feet with everyone’s safety in mind, pantry board members and volunteers implemented a workable plan.
They created an accessible drive-through area.
Those waiting for food were instructed to remain in their vehicles while volunteers filled food boxes and loaded them in the vehicles.
This approach successfully prevented personal contact but also reassured county residents that pantry doors would remain open, just in a different manner.
Even now, the pantry remains a drive-through service.
Records show that more than 34,000 household pantry visits took place in 2022, according to Bush Cooper. “And we’re on the same track for this year. The only way we can serve that many families is by using the drive-through,” she said.
Even though families are limited to making one visit each week, 90 volunteers are needed each week to keep up with demand, Phipps said.
Retired teacher, Susan Bradley-Lutzke of Bargersville volunteers every Friday, maybe the busiest day of the week to fill food orders.
During the three years she has volunteered at the pantry, community involvement has increased. “More organizations are donating,” she said. “Since Covid, the number of families we serve has definitely increased.”
So far so good, though.
From the looks of things, families are excited to find fresh produce and frozen meats at the pantry.
Sometimes personal hygiene products are also available.
Not a single staff member earns a paycheck at the pantry, not even Phipps, serving as executive director.
She doesn’t mind that at all.
“I’m a go-getter kind of person,” Phipps said. “I have learned over the years that I need meaning in my life.”
Definitely, Phipps found the meaning and the challenges she craved.
She and everyone else in a leadership role constantly look for ways to improve life for families who are struggling to get by.
“We are filling bodies with nutritious food, and we try to fill their hearts with kindness and smiles,” Phipps said. “This is our chance to help others.”
Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County
Hours: Noon to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 to 11 a.m. the second and fourth Saturday of each month.
Address: 211 Commerce Drive, Franklin
Phone number: 317-736-5090
Additional information: jcpantry.org