Sen. Dick Durbin heard Tuesday about the changing face of hunger in the Western suburbs, at a meeting with charity leaders at Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva.
After a tour of the food bank's new headquarters, Durbin asked representatives of the bank, People's Resource Center, West Suburban Community Food Pantry and the Loaves and Fishes Community Food Pantry about changes they have seen in the last eight to 10 years.
Pete Schaefer, chief executive officer of the bank, said that 40 percent of the people the bank serves are employed, and 40 percent receive food stamps. The bank supplies foodstuffs and personal care goods to charities in 13 northern Illinois counties, excluding Cook.
Durbin said he thinks that may be because wages haven't risen at the same rate as increases in the cost of living, but Schaefer said it also has happened as well-paying jobs, such as in manufacturing, have disappeared. The service sector work available doesn't pay as well. Clients are using their money to meet fixed costs, such as rent and transportation; spending on food falls into the "discretionary" category of the budget, he said.
Jane MacDonald, senior program director of Naperville-based Loaves and Fishes, said that in the fiscal year that ended in June, her pantry served 58 percent more single mothers with children than it had the year before -- 7,455, compared to 4,725. Durbin asked if Loaves and Fishes distributed food at day care centers, as maybe a reason why, but the answer was "no." After the meeting, MacDonald said she thinks low wages and high child care costs have contributed to the increase in those needing assistance.
She also told Durbin that clients are using the food pantry on a more continuous basis.
Durbin asked about a seeming contradiction: If there are so many more hungry people, why are there so many overweight people? Schaefer spoke about the expense of healthful, fresh food vs. the cheap calories of fat- and sugar-laden processed foods. But the food pantry leaders said there are other problems, such as clients' reluctance to take healthier foods that they may have never eaten or cooked, such as brown rice.
Barbara Schmith of the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge, said depression is a problem that contributes to obesity. Clients, she said, are unhappy about their lack of money or jobs, and like many other people, turn to unhealthful "comfort food" for a fix.
Durbin spoke about Congress' inability to pass the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 -- commonly called the Farm Bill -- to replace the 2008 version that expires Sunday. The Senate passed a version of the bill, but the House did not. He expects it will be taken up in the lame duck session after the November election.
The primary holdup, he said, was the nutrition programs portions of the bill, including food stamps. There is concern that the use of food stamps has grown too much too quickly, and some legislators want to fix that by reducing the number of people receiving them.
"The number receiving it is growing because the need is growing," Durbin said.