The Pickerington Food Pantry served 7,713 people in 2018, an increase of more than 1,000 over the previous year.

That trajectory -- including rising numbers of senior citizens being served -- led the pantry's board of trustees last year to add a spring fundraiser, "The Gala," to a summertime Food Truck Frenzy and the Festival of Lights held each winter.

The pantry will hold its second Gala, from 7 to 11 p.m. March 30.

It will be the first major event held in The Lodge, the banquet hall at the Wigwam, 10190 Blacklick-Eastern Road Northwest, since it was purchased last June by Violet Township.

Pickerington Food Pantry executive director Vanessa Niekamp said last year's Gala brought in $24,922, roughly equaling the success of the pantry's top fundraiser, the Food Truck Frenzy.

This year, The Lodge's capacity could help The Gala grow by about 125 attendees, and Niekamp said organizers are hoping it will bring in a record level of financial support for the pantry seeking to keep pace with the community's food-emergency assistance needs.

"The Gala is new, and the whole reason it's new is we can't support the growth that's happening in the community without it," Niekamp said.

"There are more kids that are being served -- 15 percent more families with kids are being served. We can tell our seniors have increased 8 percent in just one year.

"More people are coming through the door."

According to data provided by the pantry, the number of people served rose from 6,660 in 2017, to 7,713 in 2018.

The pantry reported last year it served 451 family households, which had an average size of 3.7 people. In 2017 it served 441 family households with an average family household of 3.54 people. In 2016 it served 419 family households, in which the average family household included 3.38 people.

Niekamp said there are misperceptions that low-income, younger families on the community's north side are driving the pantry's increased client base. She said it's more widespread than that.

In 2017, there were 863 people aged 60 or older served. That number climbed to 936 in 2018. In 2016, the pantry served 886 people age 60 or older.

At the same time, the number of "grandparent households" -- households in which grandparents are guardians to one or more minor children -- the pantry served grew from 12 in 2016, 20 in 2017 and 31 in 2018.

"A lot is because of the opioid crisis that there are more and more grandparents taking care of grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Niekamp said.

Niekamp said the caterer and vendors for The Gala are paid from the revenue raised at the event, so about 73 percent of the proceeds will benefit the pantry.

She said the event is able to raise that much money directly for the pantry, in part because Violet Township has donated the use of The Lodge, as well as a $6,000 sponsorship.

"We are excited to have the annual food pantry Gala at the Wigwam Lodge this year," said John Eisel, Violet Township's director of operations.

"We believe the venue will help provide them with increased capacity and attendance to further their mission of fighting hunger and feeding hope."

Money is raised from tickets, which are $75 per person, a cash bar and from donations provided throughout the night.

For every $1 the pantry raises, it's able to purchase $11 worth of food through its partnership with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

Each ticket will provide guests a meal and two drink coupons.

This year's theme is "The Godfather," based off of the mafia drama written by Mario Puzo and made famous by the film series directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Niekamp said the event would feature an all-Italian meal that would be reminiscent of a tour through Italy, casino-inspired games and a cigar bar.

She said her husband, Phil, is a fan of "The Godfather" triology, and the pantry board thought the theme might appeal to many of the men who attend The Gala.

"Last year, it seemed like a lot of the ladies enjoyed dressing up more than the guys," Niekamp said. "This year, I wanted to do something for the guys."

The Pickerington Food Pantry is located in Olde Pickerington Village at 70 Cross St., Suite B.

Tickets for The Gala can be obtained by visiting pickeringtonfoodpantry.org or mailing a check to the pantry.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate