78 million meals and counting: How the Northern Illinois Food Bank helps families in need
From the outside, it looks like your standard warehouse.
But inside the Northern Illinois Food Bank's Geneva headquarters, festive holidays are being made possible for families in need.
The food bank and its volunteers will send out about 60,000 "Holiday Meal" boxes this year. The 11.5-pound boxes have everything you need for a tasty holiday, including seven cocoa packets, a bag of rice, cranberry sauce, brownie mix, turkey gravy, stuffing mix, cans of corn and green beans, and more.
Of course, no holiday would be complete without a turkey or ham and a bag of potatoes. The boxes will have those as well.
The Northern Illinois Food Bank serves a network of 900 food pantries, soup kitchens, child sites and senior sites across 13 counties. In all, the organization provides about 78 million meals a year, said Maeven Sipes, chief philanthropy officer.
The food bank this year was among the recipients of a grant through Daily Herald Neighbors in Need, a partnership with the McCormick Foundation fund that raises awareness and helps solve issues of hunger, homelessness and health care disparities in the suburbs.
To donate to Neighbors in Need, visit dailyherald.com/neighbors. The McCormick Foundation matches all donations to the Daily Herald Neighbors in Need Fund at 50 cents on the dollar.
Every dollar donated will help provide $8 worth of groceries through the food bank, Sipes said.
Last year, the foundation provided $10,000, enabling the food bank to leverage $80,000 in groceries.
Food bank patrons, or neighbors as they are called, do not receive food directly from the Geneva site. It is instead distributed to remote sites, including mobile markets, where neighbors can walk up and receive food. Neighbors received 440,000 meals a month at mobile markets this year, up 40% from the previous year.
"Inflation is hitting families," Sipes said. "When the pandemic started, there were a lot of government benefits available. And so as those got phased out, inflation has been hitting."
"So for neighbors that are living paycheck to paycheck or have just enough to cover their expenses, all of a sudden they need to spend 20% more on food and 50% more on gas," Sipes said. "They don't have that extra cushion."
The 165,000-square-foot building at 273 Dearborn Court in Geneva has been a "game changer," said Gina Gramarosso, senior director of philanthropy. "We were able to distribute so much more food because we had more space."
Especially important has been the 10,443-square-foot cooler, the 10,443-square-foot freezer and the 2,847-square-foot cold deck -- in case you're wondering where all those turkeys are kept.
Along with the main warehouse in Geneva, there are distribution warehouses in Joliet, Rockford and Lake Forest.
The food bank boasts a dedicated army of volunteers, including Ken and Gail Lindner of Hanover Park.
On one recent day at the Geneva site, while "Bad Moon Rising" piped in the background, the couple was hard at work preparing kids' after-school meals.
"They typically get a beverage and a snack," Ken said. One package contained juice and a package of Fritos.
The Lindners have been volunteering for more than 25 years. Their three children also have been involved.
"We were looking for something that we could all do as a family," Ken Lindner said. "Every hour that we volunteer is always appreciated, and they always make you feel welcome. It's just a great environment to volunteer."
Last year, volunteers donated more than 130,000 hours, equivalent to the work of more than 60 full-time staffers.
Among the distribution sites is the parking lot of the Fort Sheridan Metra station in Highwood. On a recent chilly Friday, neighbors lined up with shopping carts, waiting to receive groceries.
They included Waukegan resident Don Fleming, who used to work across the street at Fort Sheridan.
"We all live in some pretty hard times right now, and the cost of living is so high," he said. "Inflation is up, too. Gas prices are up. So this is really a benefit to families."
Volunteer Laurie Nelson of Skokie said many of the people coming for food show up in work uniforms.
"They are supplementing what they can't afford," she said.
Another volunteer, John Ford of Deerfield, said he recently retired and wants to give back.
"I've been blessed in my own life," he said.