Mind & Spirit

Northern Illinois Food Bank is Stepping Up to Deal with Hunger

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You may be surprised to learn the extent that which hunger affects our neighbors. Learn how you can get involved with Northern Illinois Food Bank to help make a difference.

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Every year, hundreds of thousands of people rely on the hundreds of food pantries and feeding programs that provide millions of nutritious meals in a 13-county area supplied by Northern Illinois Food Bank. And it’s not enough.

Hunger is a problem that won’t go away on its own, says Erik Jacobsen, communications manager for the food bank.

“Hunger exists in cities and towns throughout our country, and often in places we least expect, like right in our own neighborhoods,” he says. “The issue of hunger affects men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds. People everywhere are struggling to make ends meet. In a lot of cases, people are working, but they don’t have enough money for all their expenses. Too many people have to choose between food, heat, medicine and transportation. We’ve seen an improvement in our economy, but underemployment is a significant problem now. People who have a job but were out of work, or have given up looking for work, are struggling to get back on their feet.”

The food bank is meeting the challenge by encouraging communities and individuals to get involved. It depends upon the money, food and support it receives from farmers, retailers, food manufacturers, foundations and other groups and individuals. It is working to meet a goal of providing 75 million meals in the region by the year 2020.

Among the most loyal donors are the staff members and physicians of OrthoIllinois, who just donated $30,635 during a holiday fund drive for child nutrition programs in Winnebago County. Since 2004, OrthoIllinois (formerly Rockford Orthopedic Associates) has donated more than $320,000 to the food bank’s effort to solve child hunger in Winnebago County.

In Winnebago County, the food bank supports 32 after-school programs to feed more than 1,900 students during the school week. It partners with about 20 schools to provide about 530 backpacks full of food to children each month. The BackPack Program sends children home with a weekend’s supply of food for them and two additional family members.

“We feel supporting these vital nutrition programs is one of the most effective ways to help build a stronger future for our community” says Don Schreiner, CEO of OrthoIllinois. “Providing meals not only enables the children to do better in school, but it also contributes toward better health and quality of life as these young people are being molded to become future leaders and community members.”

Jacobsen says that all donations, big or small, make a big difference at Northern Illinois Food Bank, which is able to leverage donations and turn every dollar into $8 worth of food. The food bank has received Charity Navigator’s four-star rating every year since 2002 and has earned the accreditation of the Better Business Bureau. Ninety-seven percent of the food bank’s resources go directly to programs that provide nutritional food to families and individuals in need.

All food that makes its way to the Northern Illinois Food Bank does so through three locations in the state: the West Suburban Center headquarters in Geneva; the North Suburban Center in Park City; and the Northwest Center at 765 Research Parkway in Rockford. Volunteers receive the food, then sort and pack it so it can be transported to pantries and feeding sites throughout the region. Currently, about 57 million meals are being provided each year for an estimated 600,000 people through a network of 800 food pantries and feeding sites in DuPage, DeKalb, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will and Winnebago Counties.

The Rockford location moved from Loves Park, Ill., about a year ago, to a facility that’s about 20 percent larger, with higher ceilings, and a more efficient floor plan to accommodate more volunteers, food donations and meeting space.

Those who want to get a behind-the-scenes look can sign up for a tour on the first Tuesday of each month at 2 p.m. in Rockford, at noon and 5 p.m. in Geneva, and at 2 p.m. in Park City. Meeting rooms are available at the Rockford and Geneva locations. Jacobsen suggests combining a company meeting with a group volunteer session to sort, label and repack food for a teambuilding exercise and to build camaraderie while working for a good cause. To schedule a tour or meeting room, contact Joelle Duke at (630) 443-6910, extension 129, or register online.

Jacobsen can’t emphasize enough the importance of volunteers.

“Volunteers are the backbone of our organization. Nothing is possible without our volunteers. We have many openings where help is needed and it’s a great way to meet others, get involved and do something for your community,” he says.

A new volunteer shift from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of every month was just added at the Rockford center to better accommodate people who are not available during the day. Other volunteer shifts include 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 1:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Individuals and groups can register to volunteer by going to the food bank’s website at solvehungertoday.org/volunteer.

Kay Dohlen has volunteered at the Rockford center every Saturday for more than a year. For her, volunteering is a way to give back to the community, meet people and have fun.

She works full-time at a very technical and demanding job with goals and deadlines, and likes the more relaxed and social atmosphere at the food bank on Saturdays.

“I needed to be around more people and I have made several good friends at the food bank,” says Dohlen. “Working there, I’m amazed to find out how many people are hungry and without food. I’ve never been in that situation. I feel blessed to be able to give time and money to the cause. I give donations in the names of family and friends for Christmas presents each year and it makes them feel good, too.

“I’m always looking to get people involved,” Dohlen adds. “It’s fun to see families and co-workers come in to work together and it’s a great way for students to get in their community service hours.”

Dohlen participated in the all-day first annual Pack-A-Thon last fall and plans to do it again this year. Although the day is divided up into four three-hour shifts, she chose to work all day.

“I was tired, but we had fun. We had a goal of boxing up 50,000 pounds of canned goods, and we came very close. At the end of the day, we were told how much we boxed up and how many people we helped feed that day. I loved seeing the look on people’s faces when they found out how much they did.”

The event will be held again this Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Rockford Center during Hunger Action Month.

Meanwhile, February is Canned Food Month at Northern Illinois Food Bank. Canned foods are known for their long shelf life and are an important source of nutrition for those who can’t afford or don’t always have access to fresh foods.

Although the food bank has many cutting-edge programs to provide fresh produce, dairy products and meat to people in need, canned goods have long been an ideal source of donating to food drives held in schools, libraries, offices, churches and in other locations around the region.

A new website at SolveHungerToday.org/FoodandFundDrive allows people, in the comfort of their own homes, to design their own personal fundraising campaign for the food bank. They can create their own food drive in celebration of someone’s birthday, in honor of someone, as a wedding gift or for another special occasion. Among the most-needed items for food drives are low-sodium canned vegetables, canned fruit in juice, low-sodium soups, canned chicken and canned tuna.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank is among 200 such centers across the country affiliated with Feeding America, a network of food banks headquartered in Chicago that is leading the fight against hunger in the United States.

Feeding America began in 1979 as a clearinghouse for national food donations and is now the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Every four years, Feeding America works with food banks to determine what the face of hunger looks like and how the hungry are being helped.

The latest study, “Hunger in America 2014,” shows that Northern Illinois Food Bank serves more than 71,000 people weekly on an average of eight times per year. Those people include children under age 18, who make up 36 percent of the hungry being served, while seniors age 60 and older make up 9 percent. Among all the people going to food pantries and feeding programs, 40 percent identify as white, 33 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino and 17 percent identify as black or African-American. About 66 percent of households have incomes that fall at or below the federal poverty level and 78 percent have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree. About 30 percent have completed some college, earned a business, trade or technical degree, or completed a four-year college degree or higher level of education, the report states.

In addition, the findings show that 77 percent of households had to choose between paying for food and utilities in the past 12 months, and 62 percent had to choose between food and paying for medicine/medical care in the past 12 months. Fifty-three percent of households report at least one member with high blood pressure, while 26 percent of households have at least one member with diabetes.

Because of the growing and constant need of the hungry, the food bank is always looking at ways to raise awareness, recruit volunteers and increase donations year-round.
Full on Faith was held in mid-February this year and was the first annual week-long awareness-raising event aimed at getting more faith-based organizations involved with local food banks.

Churches and other faith-based organizations make up about 66 percent of the places in the food bank’s network where people can get food from pantries and feeding sites, but there are many other religious organizations still unaware and uninvolved with the food bank, Jacobsen says.

Full on Faith encourages people to get involved by volunteering; inviting a food bank speaker to educate a congregation about the problem of hunger; and/or hosting a food and fund drive or a special collection during a service. Everyone, age 8 and older, individually or in groups of up to 50, is encouraged to participate.

Another way to help is to sponsor the Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry Program, which is a food pantry on wheels. It can provide food for up to 300 families in areas of high need where there’s not another source of help nearby. The refrigerated truck brings food to a location and operates much like a farmer’s market, Jacobsen explains.

The food bank is also a source of education. Its website helps people to find a pantry or feeding program, get assistance to buy groceries, prepare healthy meals, find recipes, see cooking demonstrations, and get help with employment, health care, housing and utilities.

Northern Illinois Food Bank opened in 1983 when a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Rosemarie Burian, had an idea to open a center for the poor in DuPage County. In its first full year of operation, The Bethlehem Center distributed 64,000 pounds of food through 80 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. Since then, much has changed, but the need to feed the hungry remains.

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