Being the executive director of an organization that provides food to almost Indiana resident 90,000 each month was never a profession on John Whitaker’s radar, but when the opportunity presented itself, he realized he had spent a lifetime preparing for it.
A decade ago, Whitaker was immersed in the operations of a retail grocery business and had over 30 years of experience with major companies such as Meijer, Super Kmart and Target. One day, he had a sudden epiphany – he felt that his profitable and successful life lacked giving back. This revelation was so striking, Whitaker stepped away from his position, left a comfortable salary and became a church janitor. Although this allowed him to learn about volunteering, he knew there had to be some occupation that would utilize his talents while serving others.
He was attending a Christmas Eve service with his family when his son and daughter directed his attention to the church announcements. One notice stated that some members were interested in starting a division of Midwest Food Bank (MFB), a faith-based, nondenominational nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization begun in Illinois, and were looking for a person qualified to head it. At the urging of his children, he applied. Among many applicants interviewed, he was offered the job.
As with other food banks, MFB is different from a food pantry in that it amasses huge quantities of foodstuffs contributed from companies, in-kind donations and monetary gifts and then distributes them to partner agencies. Since the Indianapolis division began in 2008, it has had a huge impact in fighting hunger in Indiana.
Under Whitaker’s leadership, it has grown from distributing food valued at $3.5 million during the first year of operation to $30 million today. Consistently receiving watchdog organization Charity Navigator’s highest four-star rating, MFB strives to get the most out of every gift they receive. For every $100 donated, $4,000 worth of free goods is given to the agencies it serves.
Area residents might be surprised to know that there are nine food pantries located in Greenwood as well as seven others in the county that rely on MFB as one of their sources of inventory. “Johnson is not the worse county in terms of hunger,” Whitaker explained. “But since it borders needy localities, it carries its own load, plus theirs.” Early on, he started to explore the idea of setting up remote locations within counties. Drawing on his background in food transportation logistics, he wanted a chance to try setting up a model based on spokes coming out from the center of a wheel.
About the same time, Crystal Thompson, Community Connections Coordinator at Mount Pleasant Christian Church, knew their food pantry, Living Bread Inc., and its sister clothing ministry, In His Name, were running out of space. “We had grown and grown, yet had the potential to do even greater good in the community,” Thompson stated. The congregation raised enough funds to open their $4 million, 15,000 square foot IMPACT Center in 2013.
Thompson consulted Whitaker during the building process, and the idea of the center being the first extension location emerged. Once a month, volunteers at Mount Pleasant Christian Church transform their own food pantry into a satellite location for MFB. Local pantries that were once on the waiting list for the Indianapolis site can come to Greenwood. This lessens the depletion of time and volunteer hours and saves money spent on gasoline.
Local Pantries are Grateful
The Greenwood food pantries that rely on MFB for foodstuffs are varied, but all express gratitude. Our Lady of Greenwood’s pantry outreach has grown so large, they send a truck to the Indianapolis site twice a week. Director Nancy Kilroy said, “Without what we get from them, we would be limited in the number of people we can serve. Occasionally, they supply us with things that food stamps won’t cover, such as deodorant and toothpaste.”
The Refuge and Salvation Army Samaritan Services also benefit from MFB. On the second Tuesday of every month, they drive to the IMPACT Center to load up. Wayne Miller of The Salvation Army uses his own Dodge Dakota. Bud Halfaker and Dan Gardener proudly drive the newly declared Refuge van. All the drivers quickly transport their loads back to be sorted and distributed. Marcia Foley of The Refuge commented, “I don’t know what we would do without MFB.”
To be successful, Whitaker says, “Four things are needed: food, funding, folks, faith. Each piece is integral to the others. Without one, it doesn’t work.” The Greenwood community contributes to MFB in all of these ways. For example, the local offices of Nestle Waters North America, Inc. and United Natural Foods, Inc. are regular donators. “Nestle Waters helps us locally but also allows us to send disaster aid. United Natural Foods sends us two semis every week,” states Whitaker.
Debbie Wingate, MFB’s volunteer coordinator, reports, “We have an amazing set of wonderful volunteers, 250 of which come from Greenwood on a regular basis.” One example is Randy and Susie Hewitt who not only pitch in at the main location but also serve on the board of directors. Susie has done everything from portioning, labeling and boxing to office work. Randy has driven a box truck and uses his expertise in accounting.
One special group of volunteers are students from Center Grove Alternative Academy who, in addition to spending time each week at the Indianapolis location, also maintain their Care Pantry. “It has been a fantastic partnership,” says teacher Mike Leavitt. “John has even come to our school to speak to our students.”
The nine Greenwood food pantry agencies that partner with MFB feed almost 9,000 people each month. MFB is able to help them achieve this feat by making the most of every gift they receive. As Whitaker says, “We do more with less, so people that have less can have more.”
For more information on Midwest Food Bank, visit Indianapolis.MidwestFoodBank.org.