Ryan Hunter-Reay unlloads Butterball turkeys.

A Thanksgiving-time tradition for Andretti Autosport and its business partners required more heavy lifting this morning at a Kroger store in downtown Indianapolis.

A 14-person assembly line that included 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay transferred 740 Butterball turkeys and 1,044 boxes of Kroger stuffing onto DHL Express vans for transport to four Indianapolis area food banks.

The number of turkeys increased from 500 donated in each of the previous three years to meet an ever-increasing need. More than one million people including 350,000 children in Indiana are food insecure, according to John Whitaker, Midwest Food Bank Executive Director. About 90,000 people are fed each month in Indiana.

“We do more with less so people with less can have more,” Whitaker said of his food bank that distributes $35 million in food annually on a $640,000 budget.

Hunter-Reay, the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, drives the No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda, which was on display at the transfer. He made the trip again from his Florida home to help with the annual donation. After the initial transfer, he visited the downtown Wheeler Mission to unload the boxes.

“It’s great to see the Andretti partners coming together to give back to the community that gives so much to us,” Hunter-Reay said. “I love coming to Indy. I love this place, not necessarily when the snow is coming down sideways, but this is a beautiful mid-November day. I’m happy to be here giving back to the community and I’m just real happy to be a part of what DHL, Butterball and Kroger stand for.”

Andretti Autosport crew member Brad Redman tosses a box of stuffing.In addition to the Wheeler Mission, the turkeys and stuffing were driven in DHL Express vans to the Westminster food pantry, Damar Services and Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center. 

“This really helps us, not just on Thanksgiving day, but to prepare meals throughout the year as well,” said Rick Alvis, Wheeler Mission president/CEO. “We’re pushing way over 1,000 meals a day now being served to those who are homeless and find themselves out on the street. These turkeys are a big boost to our food service area. It helps them to prepare some really decent meals, a Thanksgiving meal as everybody else has, but this will also help many other days of the holiday season.

“The need is getting increasingly more and more. We’ve not seen a decline in the number of people we’re housing. I think last night we housed probably 700 people. It’s a little early (in the season) for us to house this many. We’ve been way over capacity all year. We’ve had people on the floor literally every day of the year this year and it’s not getting better. We’ve really got a crisis coming in Indianapolis when it comes to housing those in need, and along with the housing comes the increased need of food. These turkeys come in pretty handy and I know our chefs will get really creative in how they serve it.”

Whitaker is inspired by seeing people come together for a worthy cause.

“I’ve always defined hope as ‘Having Our Perspectives Enlarged – H-O-P-E,” he said. “It’s not how it is, but how it can be. This is how it can be when people pitch in like Butterball, Kroger and Andretti Autosport. It takes a community to care and provide. This great community of love is kind of like a patchwork quilt with pieces sewn together to wrap around people in their greatest time of need.”

And the people who benefit come from all walks of life.

“Most of them are in the grips of what we call situational poverty, where folks have had an extreme event in their life, whether it’s been an illness, loss of job or they’re elderly and had an illness or are in a care facility and have to make a choice between medication and a meal or even a single mom that struggles with four or five children,” Whitaker said. “We see it every day where people are in situations they never thought they would be in and now have to struggle for the basic necessities of life. This means the world to them.”

Kerry Doughty, Butterball president and CEO, also participated in that assembly line. He grew up in Indianapolis, so it’s a personal endeavor for the 1971 Howe High School graduate. 

“It’s a great opportunity for us with Kroger, DHL and Andretti Autosport to make everybody’s Thanksgiving a little bit nicer,” Doughty said. “There’s always people in need and it’s always nice to be able to help.”

The turkeys weighed between 16 and 18 pounds each, so the extra lifting provided a bit of a workout.

“This is just like at the gym,” Hunter-Reay said.

After passing another large box down the human assembly line, he asked, “Are the boxes getting bigger?”

Someone joked that Hunter-Reay’s new nickname should be “Butterball.” The slender driver has heard that before.

“I’ve been called that a lot,” he said with a smile.

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Ryan Hunter-Reay makes donation to Wheeler Mission.