Riley food pantry needs you

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Social workers set up a food pantry in the hospital to help team members during the COVID-19 crisis, but now they are asking for help with donations and volunteers.


By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Riley Hospital for Children social workers Kat Winton and Sarah Erotas love that their job allows them to be there for patients and families in times of greatest need.

But when COVID-19 hit, they discovered how they could also be there for their fellow team members.

The two volunteered to be redeployed in the hospital a few months ago to assist with IU Health’s response to the pandemic. That’s how they found themselves once again in the role of helping, this time by feeding many of the people they work with who were experiencing financial hardship.

Empowered by the support of senior leadership and community partners, the two built a Riley food pantry from scratch. The idea was to support team members in a practical way during a challenging time.

The pantry, one of several set up at IU Health hospitals, distributes shelf-stable food out of its temporary headquarters in the Ronald McDonald House inside Riley. It opened May 25 and has served more than 200 families, Winton said. Those seeking assistance come from all over the hospital – nurses, EVS workers, PCAs, nutrition services – but all have been hit hard by COVID, so the outreach is helpful.

“We do have some regulars now, but we also see new people who are just hearing about the food pantry or just now feeling comfortable enough to come,” Winton said. “It can be scary, we know. It’s your place of work so it can be intimidating to say, ‘Yes, I do need help right now.’ ”

The pantry is open to all Riley team members. There is no pre-screening; all that organizers ask is that team members wear their ID badge. It can even be flipped over for their privacy, Winton said.

To limit contact in the interest of safety, the pantry is providing food in prepacked boxes right now, she said, something they decided to do after researching best practices of other pantries in the area. Each family (depending on size) gets one or two boxes packed with canned or shelf-stable fruits, vegetables, cereal, pasta and sauce, peanut butter, oatmeal, tuna and other necessities.

For school-age children, snack bags with granola bars, crackers and other kid favorites come in handy, especially as most children are not back in school yet. Formula and baby food also are available.

Currently, the pantry is open from 6 to 8 a.m. Mondays, 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Fridays. Before Winton and Erotas returned to their work with patients and families on 7W and 8W, respectively, they were staffing the pantry pretty consistently. Now, they depend more on Riley team members to distribute the food on a volunteer basis. Typically, three to four people are needed per shift. Riley team members can sign up here to volunteer.

“We’ve had a lot of individuals volunteer and departments volunteer. It has been really awesome to see the Riley team come together to support the food pantry,” Winton said.

Still, she would love to have more people engaged in helping support the pantry, whether through food donations or gifts of time. There are donation bins behind security in Simon Family Tower and at the Riley Outpatient Center. There is also an Amazon wish list that makes it easy to help.

“We have been receiving some donations, but there is a need for more food,” Winton said. “We are going through it more quickly than anticipated.”

Even though Riley team members have remained employed during the COVID-19 outbreak, the virus has taken a physical, emotional and/or economic toll on many. In some households, spouses or partners may have lost jobs, or a parent or child might be sick, Winton said. Daycare costs have gone up for many, with kids out of school.

“It’s important to note than on average in Indiana, (many) families are one paycheck away from identifying as food-insecure,” Erotas said, meaning they may not know where their next meal will come from. “It’s a big issue that impacts so many people, and every little bit of donated food and volunteer time helps.”

Seeing the outpouring of support from team members has been a “humbling experience,” she said.

And seeing the appreciation from fellow team members on the receiving end also has been humbling.

“We have a team member who comes fairly regularly,” Winton said. “They have a large family, and they have shown us videos and pictures of the children holding boxes of food and saying thank you. Each week, mom will tell us what dinner she made with the ingredients found in the box. That’s just really cool for us to see.”

Marissa Kiefer, Riley vice president for strategy, has been the primary adviser on the food pantry project. Others involved include Cheryl Ramey-Hunt, director of integrated care management, and Alane Helmer with the Riley Children’s Foundation.

Regardless of how long the coronavirus disrupts daily life, Winton said the goal is to keep the pantry open indefinitely. The days and times may change, “but we want to continue supporting our team members.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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