How would you like to feed 71,000 people a week?
Volunteers for the Northern Illinois Food Bank do so.
How you can helpInterested in volunteering? The food bank uses an online scheduling registration system for first-time volunteers, occasional volunteers and small groups. You can sign up at solvehungertoday.org. Children as young as 8 can volunteer, if supervised by their families or other adults. For groups of 20 or more, call (630) 443-6910.
They put in about 135,000 hours a year, at sites in Geneva, Rockford and Park City.
"So it is really important to us. It is about one-third of our workforce," the equivalent to 60 full-time employees, said Donna Larkin Lake, communications director for the nonprofit organization.
The food bank supplies food to charity pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, youth and senior centers and other food-distribution programs. It is a member of the national Feeding America network. Northern Illinois Food Bank operates in 13 northern-Illinois counties, excluding Cook County.
The food bank's largest facility is its headquarters in Geneva. And one of the biggest rooms in there is Volunteer Hall.
The hall is one place individual volunteers, and organized groups from businesses, churches, schools and the like examine, sort and pack goods donated by manufacturers; produce; and hygiene items.
It is also where a small team of regular volunteers inspects and boxes loaves of bread donated by stores and commercial bakeries.
In another room, volunteers sanitize and box goods that are donated by stores or by food drives.
There is a "clean" room, where volunteers wearing hairnets, aprons and gloves divide bulk sacks of foods such as oatmeal, quinoa and rice in to 1-pound packages.
Massive cartons of produce -- including onions, potatoes, cabbages, sweet corn, apples -- are also repackaged into bags for individual use.
Sometimes manufacturers donate pallets of products, but don't want their company name on the label when the food is given away. So volunteers relabel them.
And sometimes, there are off-site jobs. In August, volunteers from the food bank and the Greater Chicago Food Depository picked sweet corn in fields in Marengo, Hampshire and South Elgin. In August, food bank volunteers were invited to gather the remaining food from a Whole Foods grocery store in Willowbrook that was shut down, as the company opened a new store several blocks away. That got the food bank an estimated $150,000 worth of food. Volunteers have also gladly boxed up donations of leftover items from a food-industry association convention in Schaumburg. And this year, in a new program, some helped with a vegetable garden on a farm near the Geneva headquarters.
"It's easy to get involved with the food bank," Lake said. It could especially use help on weekdays. During the November-December holiday season, the Saturday-morning shift usually fills pretty quickly, she said.
There are evening shifts on weekdays.
There are a variety of jobs, not just handling food. Volunteers help in the offices, at the reception desks, at mobile food distributions, at fundraisers, and at community events. "We want folks to feel that their contribution is meaningful," Lake said.
Jon Habegger of Batavia can attest to that. He is a volunteer supervisor, overseeing and organizing the work of fellow volunteers.
He has been a volunteer at the headquarters -- at its old St. Charles location, then Geneva -- for 13 years, after he left paid employment.
"I was trying to figure out what to do next," he said, and learned of the food bank's work through his participation in a CROP Walk to raise money for anti-hunger efforts.
About two weeks ago, his Tuesday/Thursday morning crew set a record: It inspected and packaged the equivalent of 9,000 meals' worth of food in three hours.
"The big thing is I enjoy working with all the different volunteers we have here," Habegger said. The crew takes a 15-minute break in the middle of its shift, gathering in the lunchroom for water and, sometimes, sweets. Habegger said he missed socializing with other workers when he left his job.
"This (the break) is really important too, that we have the socialization factor," he said.
To learn more about the food bank or how to volunteer, visit solvehungertoday.org.