Wheaton Rotary funds 2 years of mobile food pantries for District 200
It all started with one person.
While volunteering at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Winfield, Terese Janik was alarmed to see children filing into the nurse's office several times a day to grab a snack.
She questioned what was going on and discovered those kids represented just a small fraction of the 30 percent of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 students who are considered low-income and eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
In short, the kids were stopping by the office because they were hungry.
Janik took it upon herself to start raising money to get one of the Northern Illinois Food Bank's mobile pantries to stop by the school.
She is now affectionately known as "The Food Lady" for setting up several mobile pantry visits with help from corporate sponsors and money raised through the food bank's Foodie 5K the past three years.
"They're sweet and grateful and you know you're helping," Janik said of families she has assisted. "It's nice that they feel safe. They're not embarrassed to see a familiar face."
Over the year, the effort has grown. The Wheaton Rotary Club caught wind of the need and started fundraising to sponsor mobile food trucks for District 200 that would include eggs and milk, which come at a higher price. Each visit costs about $1,700 and feeds up to 250 families for a week.
"I said that we needed to do 12," Rotary President Sheri Billing said. "The reality is summer is the most important time because now these kids aren't going to school, they're not getting the breakfast, they're not getting the lunch, and they're probably not going to summer camp because there's probably not money to do that, either."
But the club went above and beyond, gathering enough money to fund two years' worth of mobile pantries that will serve the District 200 community.
Julie Yurko, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said families often have the option to stop at other pantries, such as the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, but often don't use those resources due to lack of awareness or inability to get to the pantry at designated times.
"They may not, quite frankly, always have the courage to walk in and get help," she said. "But our mobile food pantry, that truck pulls up in the church parking lot, the apartment parking lot, the school parking lot -- trusted places for these families."
Yurko said data shows DuPage County has the highest density of "food insecure" individuals -- about 84,000, including 37,000 kids -- of any of the 13 counties the Northern Illinois Food Bank serves.
"People don't expect that," she said. "Over 70 percent of those families are working, which is not what people think. Very, very few, less than 20 percent, are working full-time, year-round jobs. So what are they trying to do? They're trying to stretch those dollars to make ends meet."
Social worker Donna Kozica said having a set mobile food pantry schedule for the next two years will be beneficial for District 200 residents.
"We've never had it where a family would know in advance where they will be in a whole year's time," she said. "That's the beauty of it, because I think families could actually say, 'I'll be able to save a little money this month by using the food bank so I could put (the money) toward a medical thing, or shoes or whatever the kids need, and I know that in this month I can go there and get my groceries for the next week.'"
On a recent afternoon shortly after the dismissal bell rang, families started lining up near a mobile pantry stationed outside Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton. There was a steady, cold drizzle, but dozens of people in need, young and old, patiently waited with large reusable bags, speaking several different languages.
Once the boxes of food were set out, the line moved quickly. Volunteers helped distribute large chunks of cheese, eggs, milk, potatoes, bread, oil, tuna, rice, frozen meat and vegetables. Karen Rood, a kindergarten teacher at Lowell, was among them.
"They're all grateful," she said, as the families moved through the line, many expressing gratitude and wishing blessings upon the volunteers. "I think we need to get the word out more, because I was hoping for a bigger turnout. We are here, ready and willing to help the children, the families in our community."
Donations to bring more mobile food pantries to the District 200 community are still being collected at www.solvehungertoday.org/district200shares.
In addition, corporate sponsors and community groups in the Northern Illinois Food Bank's service area interested in helping schools in their areas can contact Hester Bury at email@example.com or (630) 443-6910 to learn more about how they can duplicate what was done in Wheaton in their own communities.