Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 1 in 5: Getting a great start

A student at Hillside School eats breakfast in the classroom.
Instead of hanging out with their friends before school every morning, Hillside School 8th-graders Julian and Davarion make sure that their fellow students start their day off right – with breakfast.
They help sort school breakfasts and bring them to each classroom, where the teachers then distribute the meal to students.

“If you have breakfast, your mind is much more active and aware. It really gets you through the day,” Julian said.

Hillside School is in its first year participating in the National School Breakfast Program, which provides schools with meal reimbursements as long as they meet certain need requirements. At Hillside, 78 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Assistant Principal Jennifer McGuire knows the need is significant.

“These kids have a lot to worry about,” Jennifer said. “But at least they don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re going to eat breakfast.”

Generally, breakfasts include cereal, fruit, juice and milk. Nearly 400 children each day eat breakfast at Hillside.

“Eating breakfast is an important part of the day,” she said. “We want to get students off to a great start, and part of that is making sure they’re getting the nutrition they need.”

Davarion, an 8th-grader at Hillside, helps deliver breakfasts to different classrooms every morning.
For Davarion, eating breakfast is a no-brainer.

“You’d be hungry during the day if you didn’t eat breakfast,” he said.

In 2013, there were 449,000 Illinois students who were eligible for school breakfast but did not receive it. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is a partner in the Rise & Shine Illinois campaign to increase awareness of the benefits of school breakfast and encourage participation in the program.

Hillside School Principal Steve Bogren knows that the breakfast and lunch programs are a crucial line of defense against hunger.

“We know that the students will get a breakfast and lunch while they’re here,” he said. “For some of these kids, if they’re not getting those meals here, they’re not getting them at all.”

February 23 – 27, 2015 is Illinois Breakfast Week. Learn more and pledge your support at

Friday, February 13, 2015

The 1 in 5: Supporting new life

Anayeli and her six-month-old daughter Yuritzy receive assistance at the WIC site in Albany Park.
From the time a child is conceived through its early life, nutrition – for the baby and the mother – is critically important. For those struggling with hunger, accessing the food needed to help ensure a child grows up healthy can be a challenge.

But it doesn’t have to be, and that’s where WIC plays a vital role.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is funded by the federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which also funds other children’s programs. WIC provides vouchers for healthy food, nutrition education, nutrition counseling and more for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, have had a baby in the past six months, or have a child younger than five years old.

In Illinois, there are more than 269,000 women enrolled in the program.

“There’s no other system in place to provide this community-based nutrition and health support. WIC really is the only walk-in public health system at the street level,” said Margaret Saunders, the WIC/Family Case Management Director for the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County – the largest operator of WIC sites in the state.

To be eligible for the program, families must meet income guidelines which equate to approximately 185 percent of the poverty level.

“Many of our clients don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, because they’re expensive,” said Stefanie Balvanz, a site supervisor and registered dietitian at a CEDA WIC site in Albany Park. “The vouchers parents receive make those products accessible.”

That’s the case for 25-year-old Anayeli, who had a baby six months ago. She started receiving WIC services during the pregnancy.

“The nutritionists taught me about how I should be eating during the pregnancy, and which vegetables I should give my baby,” she said.

She also receives food vouchers, which enable her to purchase fresh produce, which she otherwise would not be able to afford.

“If WIC wasn’t here, it would be hard for me. It’s helped us a lot.”

Fifty-one percent of all children born in the United States receive WIC support at some point in their first few years of life.

“Our goal is to make sure children get the nutrition they need so they’re school-ready,” Margaret said. “And, we want to give parents the tools they need to be confident and healthy when raising those children.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fighting hunger during winter weather

Every day, the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s fleet of 40 vehicles is on the road, delivering food to our hungry neighbors. And, the challenges of a Chicago winter strengthen our resolve.

“Our drivers make sure that food gets where it needs to be, regardless of the weather,” said Joe Rodriguez, the Food Depository’s Transportation Director.

Winter weather poses unique challenges for the Food Depository’s transportation team, which consists of staff and numerous dedicated volunteers. One of the biggest concerns becomes making sure member agencies are still accessible for deliveries.

“We often make food deliveries in alleys, or using sidewalks,” Joe said. “But in a storm, those areas might not be plowed right away, so our drivers bring shovels and help the agencies clear out the snow so they can receive the food.”

Safety is a top priority year-round for the Food Depository’s transportation team, but during the winter months, it becomes especially important.

“The transportation team meets at six every morning, so when it’s snowing we’re able to communicate what the best routes are going to be before we leave the warehouse and keep everyone updated on road conditions,” Joe said.

For Joe and his team, the bottom line is simple: the need doesn’t stop during the winter, so neither can they.

“No matter if it’s snowing, raining, hot or cold, we’re making sure to get food out into the community, because people are counting on us,” he said.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The 1 in 5: 'These kids are hungry'

Students at Jane Addams Elementary School receive cold and hot breakfasts.

By 8:40 a.m., the usual sounds of children chattering before school in Carla Modugno’s kindergarten class are replaced with the sounds of children eating. This daily transition signals a critical part of the school day: breakfast.

Students at Jane Addams Elementary School in Melrose Park receive breakfast in the classroom – a federally funded program that is supported statewide by Illinois No Kid Hungry and the Illinois State Board of Education.

“There are a lot of kids in our district who are hungry,” said Marisa Raymond, District 89’s Food Service Coordinator. “It’s really heartbreaking to see.”

That’s why the district offers the program, which is considered an alternative service model. Since implementing breakfast in the classroom three years ago, the school consistently sees between 80 and 90 percent student breakfast participation. That’s up from 30 percent participation when Jane Addams was offering the traditional breakfast before school.

Statewide, alternative service models have been shown to increase participation in breakfast programs. But, there’s still work to be done, as there were 449,000 children who were eligible for school breakfasts in 2013 that did not receive them.

“I know that when kids have food in their system, they are more energized, engaged and alert,” Carla said.

Students get to their classrooms by 8:35 a.m., and have 20 minutes to eat before the bell rings and the instructional day begins at 8:55 a.m. Nutritious hot and cold meals, such as cereal or breakfast sandwiches, are served.

“There’s a great need for breakfast in the morning here,” said Jane Addams Principal Frank Mikl. 

“Not only does breakfast in the classroom give kids access to a nutritious meal, it also increases academic performance and gets students into school on time – because they don’t want to miss the meal.”

The child poverty rate in Melrose Park is 20 percent. Many of the children come from families with parents who are working and barely making enough money to afford food. Others struggle more, Marisa said.

“Last year, I saw a little girl going around the lunch room collecting fruit cups from the kids who weren't eating them because she was hungry. That’s why we do school breakfast,” Marisa said.

On Sept. 30, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization will expire, putting children’s meal programs – like school breakfast – at risk. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is a statewide partner in the Rise and Shine Illinois campaign, which aims to increase participation in Illinois school breakfast. 

Read more stories about the impact of children’s programs at

Monday, January 19, 2015

1 City, 1 Food Drive collects 1.3 million meals

The Union Station food drive collected nearly 15,000 pounds of food in less than 24 hours.

Throughout November and December, the Food Depository’s 1 City, 1 Food Drive campaign united more than 500 food drives with 250 public donation locations across Cook County. This year’s campaign collected more than 1.3 million meals for hungry men, women and children in our community.

Some of the highlights from this year’s campaign included the Union Station Food Drive, which collected more than 14,800 pounds of food in less than 24 hours. Commuters were given food drive bags and asked to return them full of shelf-stable groceries the following morning. Another highlight was the food drive celebration at the Merchandise Mart in late November, which brought together Food Depository supporters, volunteers, staff and donors to proclaim to Chicago that no one should go hungry.

In addition to physical food drives, virtual food drives were an important part of the 1 City, 1 Food Drive effort. The top virtual drive was Morningstar, which collected more than $76,000, the equivalent of 228,377 meals. Overall, there were nearly 400 virtual food drives throughout November and December, which collected a total of $216,000.

Thank you to everyone who volunteered, participated in a food drive, or started a food drive this holiday season. You made a lasting impact on hunger in our community. And, thank you to our key food drive partners, including the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, Boy Scouts of America Chicago Area Council, Chicago Bulls, City of Chicago, Fox Chicago, InterPark, ISSA Family Foundation and Life Time Fitness Turkey Day 5K.

Food drives are critical during the holidays, but are needed year-round. Start one now.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The 1 in 5: A guaranteed meal

A group of boys at the Falcon Park Kids Cafe hang out after finishing their meal.

Every day after school around 3 o’clock, a bus full of children arrives at the Falcon Park Recreation Center in Palatine for the Kids Cafe. The students pour out, laughing and smiling, toting backpacks full of homework. They are a mix of first through sixth graders, bundled in brightly colored hats, coats and scarves. Despite their differences in age, they have one thing in common: they are all at risk of hunger.

“The resources for healthy, affordable food just don’t exist in this area,” said Courtney Renwick, the program coordinator for the Buehler YMCA’s Kids Cafe at Falcon Park.

Even though it is surrounded by an affluent suburban community, the Kids Cafe – a Greater Chicago Food Depository program – fills a significant need, as one in seven children in Palatine lives in poverty.

“There’s a huge disparity between residents in Palatine,” Courtney said. “Some are well off, but there is also a population that is really struggling.”

The Kids Cafe serves a meal to approximately 40 children each day. On a recent Wednesday, students received a tuna sandwich, fruit, raisins and milk. Some of the children won’t eat again until breakfast at school the following morning.

“I have to fight for food when I go home,” said 12-year-old Ulysses. “I have four sisters and they eat first.”

For Courtney, Ulysses’ situation is neither surprising nor unique.

“There are a lot of basic necessities that aren’t being met in this community,” she said. “You can just tell by how these kids eat the meals. They eat like there’s no tomorrow.”

The program also focuses on homework help.

“Getting meals goes hand-in-hand with good academic performance,” Courtney said.

Around 5 o’clock, a bus picks up the children to take them home. Some will go home to find that there is not a meal waiting for them.

“My favorite fruit is bananas,” Ulysses said. “But we don’t get those at home.”

Despite the inconsistency at home, Ulysses and the rest of the children can count on returning to the Kids Cafe tomorrow, with the guarantee of another meal.

“When they’re here we know they’re getting at least one nutritious meal, and that’s what’s important,” she said.

Kids Cafes are just one of the programs funded by the Child Nutrition Reauthorization – a federal law that supports children’s programs. The law is set to expire on Sep. 30, 2015.

To learn how to get involved in the Food Depository’s advocacy efforts, visit

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 1 in 5: Winter break

9-year-old Leo eats a nutritious meal at the Union League Boys & Girls Club Club One Kids Cafe.

During the summer months many children in Cook County face hunger as they are away from free and reduced price school meals. When classes resume in September, thousands of students receive the meals they need to stay healthy.
Families face the same challenge during winter break.

That’s why many Greater Chicago Food Depository Kids Cafes are open throughout the holiday season, including the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs Club One in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“Unfortunately for a lot of the kids that come to the Club during winter break, the meal they get here might be the only meal they’re getting during the day,” said Ben Medina, assistant club director.

Throughout the year, but especially during the holidays, the need among families is significant in Pilsen, Ben says.

“A lot of our kids’ parents are barely making ends meet,” he said. “They’re working graveyard shifts, or two or three jobs a day making minimum wage.”

Children receive a hot meal prepared by the Food Depository at the Kids Cafe. In addition, they can play sports or, when school is in session, do their homework. The Kids Cafe serves approximately 150 children each day. One of them is 9-year-old Leo, a fourth-grader who’s been coming to the Club for the past two years.

Leo has a brother and sister. His mom works during the day and his dad works at night to support the family.

“I like the fruit and vegetables I get here,” he said.

With the food Leo eats at the Kids Cafe, he’s able to stay healthy and concentrate on his favorite subject in school.

“I really like math,” he said. “My favorite homework is math and I like playing on the computers too.”

Also eating a meal at the Kids Cafe was 15-year-old Cesar, a quiet freshman who plays football and is on the wrestling team. For him, the healthy meals he eats at the Club are important to staying in shape.

“I try to eat the oranges and apples when I’m here,” he said. “They’re good to eat for sports.”

Whether it’s winter break, during the summer, or when school is in session, children face hunger in Pilsen and across Cook County. But the response is strong.

“I know this program really makes a difference,” Ben said. “It’s awesome to see the kids getting a well-rounded meal.”