As the year winds down, it's traditionally a time to take stock of where we're at on a personal level and beyond. I and my family have been fortunate in many ways this year and generally enjoy good health and food on the table. But for believers and non-believers alike, the phrase "there but for the grace of God" reminds us that, despite our best intentions and sound decisions, misfortune can hit anytime and anywhere like a figurative (or literal) hurricane.
Recently, I contacted the Community Program Manager at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, Kristi Braun, who kindly give me some insight into the workings of our local food pantry (Oak Park and River Forest are villages just west of Chicago) and told me how they're dealing with this year's particular challenges. Here's what she had to say:
____________ Q: Has the latest round of food stamp cuts affected the food pantry's projected need for resources? We are seeing an upsurge in client visits. Too early to tell if that is a result of the SNAP (food stamp benefit) cuts , but the timing is right. I think we will see more people coming. Where else are they going to get the food they need?
Q: How can local residents get involved and what is the best way to donate (volunteering, cash, specific food items)? There are a number of ways that local residents can get involved. People immediately think of donating food as the #1 way to help out. Our focus is to provide protein-rich, nutrient-dense food to our clients. Protein food donations go a long way. Food costs have gone up considerably, especially protein foods (meat, peanut butter, tuna, etc). Of the 60,000 lbs. of food that are distributed each month, only 40% of it comes from food donations. We have to purchase approximately 60%. A $1 donation enables us to purchase $10 worth of food. We purchase our food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository (1 of 8 IL food banks). So monetary donations go a long way. And volunteering is always a great way to get involved at the food pantry. We have been averaging 1,600 volunteer hours each month. Needless to say, volunteers are the backbone of our organization.
Q: How widespread is the hunger problem in our area? Food insecurity in Oak Park is 10.5%. In Austin it’s 34.2%. The other communities we serve range from a River Forest low of 5.1% to Humboldt Park at 22.1%. One of 4 families with children region-wide are food insecure. One in three working poor and single mother-headed households are food insecure.
Q: How does the pantry get its funding? (private donations, federal/state funding, community organizations?) All of the above. By far our biggest source of funding is individual donations. The only federal support we have is USDA commodities (about 10% of the food we distribute). We also have a Community Development Block Grant through HUD (allocated through the Village of Oak Park), but it is only about 5% of our funding.
Q: How will the pantry mark the coming holidays? While we would love to be able to provide our clients with specialty holiday items (turkeys, hams, etc) we have chosen to spend our food dollars on nutrient-dense and protein-rich foods throughout the year rather than focus a large amount of food dollars on holiday foods that only benefit a few or by providing smaller amount of food needed for day to day meals. ____________ The numbers of those going hungry in the richest nation on earth are sad and staggering, but maybe the most significant number is the amazing statistic that food pantries get a 1000% boost in buying power for every dollar they receive.
For more information on the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, here's a video that goes into more detail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i06omP_xxh8
Many thanks to Kristi and to all the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry volunteers. And to all a great Thanksgiving and remember that giving to those in need is a year round thing.