Suburban food pantries need help giving help
Helga O'Malley's face lit up when she was handed a frozen turkey at Catholic Charities' food pantry off Rand Road in Des Plaines.
"You got the last one," Mary Insprucker, Northwest regional director, said with a wistful smile.
O'Malley said the turkey will turn the Thanksgiving Day meal for her and her two children into a holiday feast she hadn't thought they'd be able to have. Monday was the Niles woman's first visit to the pantry -- she learned of its services at morning Mass just a few days earlier.
Across the suburbs, food pantries are faced with an impossible ratio -- an increasing demand, but shrinking supply.
At some food pantries, former supporters now are among the needy. Federal and state funding is down, and some don't get any government money. Faced with such challenges, some food pantries in the suburbs are finding unique ways to stretch resources as they serve more people than ever before.
"It really tears into your heartstrings. You see a man come in, hat in hand, near tears that due to a job loss he's having to come for help for the first time in his life," Insprucker said. "A lot of the people to come to us for help are the people who used to support us. And now they find themselves standing in the lines."
Since 2006, the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps and administered via Link cards, has seen a rise in the number of people in the program in an average month by 46 percent in Cook County, 133 percent in DuPage County, 84 percent in Lake County, 96 percent in Kane County, 168 percent in McHenry County and 74 percent in Will County.
But even that help isn't enough for some struggling suburban families to put food on the table every night.
Margaret Katsigkas, a single mother with children ages 17, 14 and 12, has been to the food pantry in Des Plaines twice in recent months to help stretch her Link allowance.
"It's so hard on them," she said of her children, wiping tears from her eyes as she sits, waiting for a bag of food.
The ranks of the needy have only increased in the year since a Northern Illinois Food Bank study found that more than 60,000 suburban residents were served at food pantries each week, said Donna Lake, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based organization.
Melissa Travis, director at the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, said the DuPage County food pantry expects to see more than 35,000 families in November.
Just this week, it will see nearly 1,000 families.
Yet, at the same time, because of the rising price of food and the end of the federal stimulus program, Illinois this year saw a 37 percent decrease in the amount of food received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for distribution to those who need it.
Insprucker said volunteers more carefully ration what goes into bags of food, pointing to a list showing that a family of four should be given four cans of fruit and vegetables, instead of six, as in years past.
"We are hurting so badly now we're trying to develop some food pantry initiatives," Insprucker said.
Donations are needed, especially at this time of year. In addition to regional food banks, many churches and townships operate food banks or can give referrals for places to donate within the community.
Both the People's Resource Center and Catholic Charities' pantries have begun seeking corporate sponsorships over recent months to help offset costs.
The DuPage Medical Group in Westmont is a sponsor to the Wheaton facility.
At Catholic Charities' pantry in Des Plaines, Insprucker says she's asked members of her old sorority from Mary Grove College in Michigan, as well as a group of executive women who get together for lunch annually, to donate.
"The money is one size fits all," she said. "And we can get the foods we desperately need in this pantry."
Catholic Charities spokeswoman Kristin Ortman estimates that every $1 given to Catholic Charities can be turned into $10 worth of food by using food banks as suppliers.
"We need you!" a leaflet says, advertising sponsorship opportunities ranging from $500 to $1,000.
"Right now, given the situation we're in, it's a real step-up-and-help-your-neighbor crisis kind of level," Insprucker said.
How to helpNorthern Illinois Food Bank
Looking for: Donations, volunteers. www.northernilfoodbank.org
Greater Chicago Food Depository
Looking for: Donations. www.chicagosfoodbank.org
Catholic Charities food pantries in Northwest Cook and Lake County
Looking for: Sponsorships, ranging from $500 to $10,000
How to: Call (847) 376-2118, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Peoples' Resource Center of Wheaton and Westmont
Looking for: Donations and volunteers
How to: (630) 682-5402 or visit www.peoplesrc.org
Loaves and Fishes Community Pantry in Naperville
Looking for: Donations. (630) 355-3663, www.loaves-fishes.org
UMMA Center, 21 W. Washington St., Waukegan
Looking for: Donations. (847) 336-6136, www.ummacenters.org