When Julie Yurko talks about her work, one phrase finds its way repeatedly into the thread of conversation.
"Our hungry neighbors."
The repetition, no doubt, has a strategic purpose, for it is the central idea in the "Feeding Our Hungry Neighbors" slogan for the organization of which Yurko is president and CEO, the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
But there is still something haunting in those words. Suburbanites think often in terms of neighbors and neighborhoods; it's in many ways a defining concept for us. But we don't often think in terms of hungry neighbors.
Sometimes we must. Even if the need is not immediately apparent around us, it clearly shows in the numbers.
The Northern Illinois Food Bank, which works with numerous agencies to fight hunger in a 13-county region, serves nearly 72,000 people a week. More than three-quarters of the households it serves have a family member who is actively employed and many of the remainder are retired, disabled or in poor health.
To the east, the Greater Chicago Food Depository -- like NIFB a network of food banks and agencies seeking to serve the hungry -- reports that 800,000 people in Cook County don't know where their next meal is coming from. Even in Northwest suburban towns usually thought of as "affluent," the proportion of people considered "food insecure" is often as high as 15 percent, or nearly one in seven.
In a meeting with the Daily Herald editorial board recently, Yurko said her agency serves about 50 million meals a year, but that a quadrennial survey by the hunger-relief charity Feeding America found it would take 75 million meals to satisfy all the needs of food insecure individuals in the NIFB region.
In other words, fully one-third of the need is not being met. Thousands of families are having to choose between eating and paying the utility bill, the rent or the cost of getting back and forth to work. The agency hopes to close that 25 million-meal gap over the course of the next five years, but that goal and similar efforts in Cook County depend much on awareness of the need.
"We rely heavily on the goodness of others," Yurko said, describing donation projects that range from individual food drives to significant contributions from corporations and food companies. "So, we're trying to spread the word about how many of our neighbors" -- that word again -- "need food assistance."
None of us is going to solve the hunger problem on our own, but the NIFB's effort to close the "meal gap" is an important reminder that the problem is close at hand for all of us. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we suburbanites picture our neighbors, but hunger still should find its way into our thinking.