The new president and chief executive officer of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana wants to help feed more people in Bartholomew County.

But first, he came to be fed — information, perspective and ideas. That unfolded Thursday as the kickoff of a 20-county tour of Gleaners’ service area outside its Marion County headquarters.

John Elliott, who assumed his Gleaners role in September after a leadership post with Kroger, visited his nonprofit agency’s partners in Columbus at the Love Chapel Food pantry and a separate food pantry at Columbus East High School.

He also met over lunch with other community partners, primarily from local schools, and separately with officials from Columbus Regional Health to discuss being a partner in clients’ health and nutrition.

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“This is about listening and information gathering,” Elliott said, sitting near Love Chapel’s loading entrance, where a team of about 20 Love Chapel volunteers unloaded food and stocked items. “In part, we want to make sure what we think we know about hunger and the people of Bartholomew County is accurate.

“This is about education — and genuinely being a more helpful and better-informed partner,” Elliott said.

Meeting with a range of local partner agencies is crucial because hunger is only a symptom of a struggling resident’s situation that might involve illness, joblessness or other obstacles, Elliott said.

One of Gleaners’ most visible local roles involves trucking donated food from area retailers such as Kroger Marketplace or Sam’s Club to Love Chapel three times per week. Plus, a Gleaners’ mobile pantry truck visits Bartholomew County several times per month to supplement food on local shelves.

Love Chapel pays about $700 to $800 for each monthly mobile pantry visit, Love Chapel executive director Elizabeth Kestler said. Gleaners said its cost for each mobile pantry is about $2,000.

Two mobile pantry visits for the Salvation Army each monthly are covered partly by grants, and the Salvation Army also purchases some Gleaners food quarterly.

Other Gleaners’ donors locally and statewide, including Columbus-based Cummins Inc., help cover those costs. Chad Mayer, Cummins’ director of corporate indirect marketing, is a Gleaners board member.

“I think it’s great (they visited),” Salvation Army Capt. Alan Sladek said of Gleaners’ stop last week. “I think it shows they really care about Columbus and Bartholomew County.”

The Salvation Army also occasionally receives food from Love Chapel’s overflow, Kestler said. Love Chapel also regularly donates its excess to the Community Center of Hope, and a variety of other local agencies.

Kestler and the Love Chapel staff said they liked the idea of meeting Elliott and a team of four people who accompanied him. Elliott took a brief tour at Love Chapel and talked at some length with Kestler about current programs to feed about 1,000 families monthly.

Elliott listened while Kestler pointed out small ways Gleaners can be a more effective cog with the work of Love Chapel, by far the biggest agency locally confronting hunger.

While Love Chapel leaders still encourage canned and related-food donations, Elliott pointed out that financial donations ultimately translate to a better and more stewardly food supply for Gleaners to distribute. Canned food donations, for example, require lots of volunteer manpower to sort and distribute, he said.

Columbus resident William Watson has been a Love Chapel client off and on for about three years and a Gleaners mobile pantry client in the past when it has stopped at Columbus locations such as a Cummins parking lot. He said he appreciates how both agencies have helped him amid an ambulatory disability in his retirement from being a Columbus business owner.

And he likes the idea of Gleaners supplementing his monthly food visits to Love Chapel in any way possible.

“From my point of view, the more help we can have here, the better,” Watson said. “But I have to be careful about all the carbs such as pasta and breads and that kind of thing.”

He smiled, patted his stomach, and referred to trying to watch his weight.

Kestler told Elliott she much appreciates the idea of Gleaners’ support role. But she also told him Love Chapel’s role and its current food programs need not be duplicated in an efficient, streamlined system funded by donor dollars.

Kestler also emphasized to Gleaners’ representatives that a local food insecurity coalition “does a really good job coordinating with the community to provide its own needs.”

When Elliott completes his visits to Gleaners’ other counties, he will plan follow-up visits later in the year. And, ultimately, in his new post that sometimes is filled with analyzing stats, one simple one truly fuels his passion.

“A number I’d ideally like to see reduced,” Elliott said, “is the number of people who are hungry.”

Gleaners financial support locally

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana currently gets an average of about $75,000 of annual support from Bartholomew County residents for a variety of food provided to the community, according to its figures.

Its leaders say it hopes to make up a shortfall of about $138,600 for its services provided for Bartholomew County residents.

Although Gleaners President and CEO John Elliott distributed fact sheets showing those figures, he said no official fund drive is planned — but “simply our usual fund-raising in the county.”

Services include food trucked from its Indianapolis warehouse to Columbus via mobile pantries, food for school pantries, “Backsack” weekend meals for children from low-income families, and other assistance.

About Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana

The Indianapolis-based Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana on its website at gleaners.org lists its mission as “simple and direct: To end hunger by engaging individuals and communities to provide food for people in need.”

It does that for about 260,000 people in 21 Indiana counties, including Bartholomew, Jackson, Jennings and Decatur.

Gleaners distributes 821,477 pounds of food annually to Bartholomew County residents.

Its figures show that one in six people in central and southeast Indiana struggles with hunger and food insecurity — unsure of where their next meal or next day’s meals will originate. Senior citizens and children are the demographic groups with the highest need when it comes to battling hunger, Gleaners leaders say.

About Gleaners' new leader

John Elliott became president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana on Sept. 6.

The Noblesville resident had served as public affairs manager for The Kroger Company’s Central Division based in Indianapolis.

Through his position at the supermarket, Elliott had been involved with several hunger-relief efforts. That includes serving on the boards of Gleaners and Second Helpings.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.