Duke Energy Partners with Mary Lee Maier Community Pantry
Duke Energy dollars – and volunteer power – are combatting food insecurity
On MLK Day, Indiana employees often volunteer at local food pantries, which work together to meet a growing need in the community
By Page Leggett
In Hendricks County, Ind., an army of food pantries is working to support families experiencing food insecurity.
More than 12,000 people in the county west of Indianapolis are food insecure, and over 3,400 are children, said Kristi Kerr, executive director of the Mary Lee Maier Community Food Pantry (MLM), which serves Avon Community School Corp. families and employees out of Avon Intermediate School East.
The nonprofit is one of almost 20 food pantries in the Hendricks County Food Pantry Coalition, which shares resources, buys in bulk and distributes the food. The county is home to Duke Energy Indiana’s Regional Headquarters.
Families experiencing food insecurity are growing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2022, 44.2 million people, including 13 million children, were living in food-insecure households, an increase from 10.2% in 2021 to 12.8%.
“We don’t want any child going to bed hungry,” said Jean Renk, Duke Energy government and community relations manager.
That’s why supporting hunger relief efforts is part of the Duke Energy Foundation’s work to lift people out of poverty and aid in their upward mobility.
The Duke Energy Foundation in 2023 donated $200,000 to battle food insecurity in Indiana.
“These are pressing times, and we’ve seen demand for food assistance increase,” said Kim Vogelgesang, Duke Energy Foundation manager. “Supporting food insecurity is a focus area for us and we continue to look for ways to help our local communities.”
“One of the most basic needs is food, and we look for ways to support communities we’ve served for more than a century,” said Duke Energy Indiana President Stan Pinegar. “We depend on organizations such as the Hendricks County Food Pantry Coalition to help us deliver support to those who need it most.”
Duke Energy employees also support the food pantries by volunteering. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?"
On this year’s MLK Day, as many as 25 Duke Energy Indiana volunteers will fan out across the coalition’s food pantries – as they have for several years – to assemble hygiene bags with shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and soap; paint and make repairs; stock shelves; and clean out refrigerators.
Renk will volunteer again this year with her husband and 11-year-old son. “We always have kids there, which I think is fantastic,” she said. “We don't ask them to stay the entire day; we recognize it's a day off. But when you’re working collectively, a few hours can have a huge impact.”
Kids and teens often volunteer at MLM, and Kerr welcomes them. “We explain what we do and tell them there might be kids in their own classroom who don’t have enough to eat at home,” Kerr said. “Kids are very compassionate and want to do what they can to help.”
The numbers of people experiencing food insecurity are higher than pandemic levels, Renk said. And the demographics may surprise you.
“The people who shop at food pantries aren’t homeless and out of work,” Renk said. “They’re our neighbors. They’ve had to make a trade-off and are relying on food banks to provide groceries so they can pay their rent, transportation costs and medical bills.”
The MLM Food Pantry’s client base has grown from 36 families a week in 2019 to 104 families by the end of 2023.
If you walked into MLM, you’d probably mistake it for a grocery store.
“The best compliment I ever receive is when someone says our pantry looks just like a grocery store,” Kerr said. “That’s our goal. This is a safe space, and we want our families to be treated with dignity and always made to feel welcome.”
Volunteers make it all happen.
Renk considers it an honor to support not just the families relying on food pantries, but the hard-working volunteers who keep the doors open. “It’s so gratifying to support the volunteers who do this daily,” she said. “They’re in the trenches. Most of these food pantries are ‘staffed’ by unpaid volunteers. They do it because they feel a calling.”
Volunteering is always humbling for Renk: “It’s bittersweet, honestly. It brings you an awareness of the struggles people in our community face.”
This is a struggle that can be overcome. Kerr and volunteers celebrate with a family when they no longer need the pantry’s support.
“We always tell them to make sure they’re fully back on their feet before they stop coming,” she said. “And we tell them we’ll always be here to help.”
Photos courtesy Duke Energy
- MLM Pantry