Maria Lucero of East Chicago sat in her car for just over four hours to be first in line for the first of 10 Foodbank of Northwest Indiana mobile Thanksgiving markets at their Merrillville warehouse on November 11.
It’s been a long and often boring wait as dozens of vehicles queued up for miles behind her that Friday. But she said it’s better to be smart than safe, especially since turkeys are very expensive this year and the closer you get to the end of the line, the thinner the haul.
“What I encountered is that at the end of the line you get things like a chicken, whipped cream and a can,” Lucero said wearily. “I understand that (pantries) do their best to make sure everyone has a little something, but when so many people are desperate they just want to put something on the table that feels normal. Money is tight.”
“And I’m in the same boat as them. I want to break down just thinking about it.”
Food prices coming this holiday season are prompting nonprofits and community groups to get creative to help Northwest Indiana’s food shortages have something tasty on their tables this Thanksgiving. The number of people in Northwest Indiana affected by food insecurity has not yet fallen below pandemic levels, said Vic Garcia, the foodbank’s president and CEO, although the composition has changed and burdened more people of color and single-family households. Through their efforts, Garcia said, the food bank still feeds between 12,000 and 14,000 unique people a month, more or less.
For Thanksgiving this year, the food bank will be set up to provide 3,200 families with a whole turkey, sides and dessert through various mobile markets, with three more planned for the coming week, he said. The Foodbank chose to go down this route instead of hosting a huge event so people with transportation barriers have a better chance of getting the food.
The food didn’t come cheap, however, he said, despite the generosity of Strack and VanTil, BP, Humana and new partner Ken Allen Law Group, which hosted two Mobile Market locations, among others. Wholesale turkey prices are at record highs after a difficult year for US herds. A particularly deadly strain of bird flu — first reported in February on a turkey farm in Indiana — has wiped out 49 million turkeys and other poultry in 46 states this year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
As a result, U.S. turkey inventories per capita are at their lowest since 1986, said Mark Jordan, chief executive officer of Leap Market Analytics, based in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Jordan predicts that the wholesale price for an 8- to 16-pound frozen turkey — the kind typically bought for Thanksgiving — will hit $1.77 a pound in November, up 28% from the same month last year.
Garcia said he placed the foodbank’s turkey order in September because he expected there would be trouble, and the holiday season isn’t the time to miss out — a lesson East Chicago’s The People’s Turkey Drive learned quickly learned the hard way. according to Juan Fernandez, one of its founders.
Fernandez and his partners – Nina Zamora-Ojeda, also from East Chicago; and Jason Reyes of Hobart – had decided after two years of being unable to help their community because of the pandemic, they would come back with a vengeance this year. The plan, he said, was to provide 1,000 families with a full Thanksgiving dinner, up from the 831 they fed in 2019.
When they started organizing their ride in August, which will be held at Wicker Memorial Park in Highland this weekend, they had about $30, he said. Various fundraisers helped some, but they still felt the pinch of the additional average cost increase of 11% and certainly didn’t expect a shortage of mashed potatoes in boxes, for example.
And then there were the turkeys, which until a week or two ago looked like there wouldn’t be any, Zamora-Ojeda said.
“This year it was very difficult to find a lot of turkeys and we talked about giving out gift cards instead of (turkeys) because we couldn’t find anyone who would give us what we needed,” she said.
Reyes and Fernandez ended up calling multiple locations, she said, and things continued to look bleak until about two weeks ago. Reyes, Fernandez said, found a spot in Joliet, Illinois that would give them 600 birds, which the two men retrieved Saturday morning.
The price for 600 turkeys, Fernandez said, was $12,000, compared to $9,000 for the 800+ turkeys they gave away in 2019.
But even with an exciting ending and some of their families receiving gift cards for their birds, the trio look forward to getting closer to the number of families helped in 2019.
“Jason keeps saying, ‘I know we’re going to be close (to 1,000)’,” Fernandez said. “On October 1st, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have anything – enough money, no volunteers – and he kept saying, ‘Yes, but our volunteers are different.’ In fact, we’ve had some great cash donations, and we expect at least 40-70 people to pack and deliver each day.”
“We are just blessed that so many people believe in us to help families in need,” added Zamora-Ojeda. “The demand to help families this year is so high because groceries are skyrocketing.”
Washington, DC’s Jahmal Forde brought Gary legend James “Coach” Piggee Jr. to the Foodbank’s first mobile market. The two, who were part of the first group allowed into the parking lot, awaited the queues.
“It’s a time of giving,” Piggee said.
Michelle L. Quinn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
The Foodbank of Northwest Indiana will be hosting the following Hope for the Holidays Mobile Markets ahead of Thanksgiving:
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday, November 21 at Hammond Central High School, 633 Highland St., Hammond;
2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, November 22, at Castle Subaru, 6100 US Highway 6, Portage; and
Wednesday, November 23, 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at Twins Oak Park, 3101 Huntington Ave., New Chicago