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The first time I visited a food pantry I felt sad because I didn’t realize so many people living near me went hungry daily; and overwhelmed because I didn’t know how to help.

By chance, I was introduced in 2016 to the St. Columbanus Church Food Pantry on the South Side of Chicago — only about 19 miles from The Times’ Munster office.

Each time I visited, I would see people lined up with metal carts, empty suitcases and various makeshift boxes and bags. The organized line would curve around the church several hours before the food pantry opened for “business.”

Inside the building or outside in the parking lot (depending on the weather) volunteers kept busy separating plastic bags and organizing food by type. When the doors opened people filed in, often knowing the volunteers well, to select food for themselves, family members and neighbors. When I talked with them they described how necessary the food pantry was to their lives.

At first I was this random person talking to the volunteers and food pantry clients to better understand how the pantry helped the community. But the more times I showed up, the more we got to know each other.

For example, I remember the first time Victor, a longtime food pantry client, showed me photos of his children and then at each subsequent visit he provided me with an update. Conversations like that changed my life for obvious reasons. When you know a friend or acquaintance is facing a problem it affects you deeper than when a stranger faces that same problem.

Those conversations also put a face on the hunger and poverty situation and showed me a reality I wasn’t paying attention to in Chicago.

But it’s not an isolated situation.

Feeding America reports that 41 million Americans struggle with hunger, a number nearly equal to the 40.6 million living in poverty. Poverty is just one of several issues tied to hunger. Unemployment, household assets and even demographics can also make it challenging to access nutritious food, the organization said. And in terms of children — 13.3 million (18 percent) of children under age 18 live in poverty.

In Northwest Indiana, nearly 100,000 individuals are food insecure, meaning they lack access to enough good, nutritious food for themselves and their families. That ends up being 1 in 6 people do not know where their next meal will come from, according to the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana. The food bank distributes more than 4.5 million meals each year in Lake and Porter counties.

When looking for local volunteers from area food pantries to interview, I found two individuals who shared their stories of how they help others gain access to food.

Whiting resident Arlene Schilling, 65, retired in July 2012 as a registered nurse in a surgical intensive care unit and as a risk manager. For the past six years she’s volunteered with the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana. She helps with its summer feeding program where children at certain sites receive breakfasts while at their summer camps. When school starts she transitions into the organization’s backpack program where students take home a bag of food to eat on the weekends. She also helps with the organization’s seniors program by packing boxes of food for them.

“I always felt people in this country should not be hungry,” Schilling said. “It goes back to my mother during the Depression when she came home and asked my grandma what there was to eat and she said we don’t have anything to eat. We are in a time of abundance. People throw so much food out and there are people that are hungry and that’s crazy to me.”

“It gives me a good feeling,” she said about volunteering. “I’m helping people I don’t necessarily know but I don’t have to know. This serves the people who live around me.”

Hammond resident James Spencer, 68, worked at then-Inland Steel as a brick mason for 40 years. He retired in 2006 and increased the amount of time he volunteers with the Salvation Army, an organization he’s belonged to all his life.

On Wednesday nights he cooks dinner for anywhere from 20 to 40 children who participate in after-school activities. The children’s favorite meals? A chicken and noodle stew with potatoes, spaghetti and pizza burgers.

“To me it’s just as much a ministry as what the pastor has,” Spencer said. “The kids call me Mr. Jim and ask what’s for supper. Especially since my wife passed away this gives me a chance to get out of the house and I know the kids enjoy it. To me this is important because God wants us to do these things. He wants us to help each other.”

To volunteer at these organizations visit: the Food Pantry of Northwest Indiana at https://foodbanknwi.org, the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division and Corps Community Centers at http://www.salarmyhammond.org and St. Columbanus Food Pantry at http://www.stcolumbanuschicago.org/history-of-food-pantry/.

The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.