Friday, April 24, 2015

The 1 in 5: ‘This could be the only meal these children get in the morning’

Childhood hunger exists throughout Cook County, in some areas affecting 1 in 2 children.

It’s a need the Greater Chicago Food Depository is addressing, but the Food Depository is just one part of the response.

Casa Central, a social service agency operating in Humboldt Park for the last 60 years, also provides children’s meal programs, including breakfast and lunch at a day care and meals after school for grade school and high school students.

Katrina Vigsnes, Casa Central’s director of nutrition services, knows the need is high in the community.

“In some cases, this could be the only meal these children get in the morning,” she said.

According to Katrina, Casa Central serves approximately 150 children per day. The meals are reimbursed through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which is funded by the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

“I don’t know how we’d do this if CACFP was gone,” Katrina said.

Casa Central follows the required federal nutrition guidelines, but makes sure to put additional emphasis on the nutrition component.

“We find that a lot of the children that come to the program are overweight and obese and the food they’re getting at home probably isn’t the best, it probably isn’t very well-balanced,” Katrina said.

That’s why they provide twice-monthly nutrition activities for the children and also try to include a fresh fruit in every meal.

“Knowing how to cook and understanding what healthy food is are two of the precursors to having a healthy life,” Katrina said.

In September, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is slated to expire, and children’s meal programs across our community could be impacted. It is critically important to protect the Act’s funding for those programs.

To read more stories of the impact of children’s programs, visit

Friday, April 10, 2015

The 1 in 5: Meeting the need year-round

A child receives lunch at Casa Juan Diego in Pilsen.
For the Kids Cafe at Casa Juan Diego in Pilsen, there is no spring break.

Even when Chicago Public Schools close for a week in April, the Greater Chicago Food Depository program stays open. It’s indicative of the need among children in the community.

“We want to make sure that children have a meal and a place to go,” said Amanda Yepez, the Kids Cafe coordinator. “We know there’s a need here. Many of these families are struggling to survive.”

During the school year, the Kids Cafe serves meals to approximately 50 children each day. Many of the children in Pilsen come from families in which both parents work, but healthy food is still difficult to afford.

“We’re able to provide these children with a healthy, well-balanced meal,” Amanda said. “Families are having trouble paying bills and rent and everything and can’t afford that for their children.”

Casa Juan Diego doesn’t just stay open during spring break. When school ends in June, they become a summer meal site.

“I’d say the need is almost greater during the summer,” said Ricardo Marines, Casa Juan Diego’s assistant director.

This summer, Ricardo expects to serve nearly 100 children per day at the Kids Cafe.

“Most of the time, kids come to our center during the summer without having breakfast or lunch,” he said.

Casa Juan Diego is just one of many children’s meal sites sponsored by the Food Depository during the summer. Programs like Kids Cafes and the Lunch Bus, which delivers meals to children at 21 sites per day, help bridge the gap for children who were receiving free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school during the year but no longer have access to those meals.

For Ricardo, the philosophy is simple.

“Whether it’s winter, spring or summer, we want to make sure we have a place – and a meal – for these children.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

The 1 in 5: Eating breakfast, dancing, living healthy

A student receives breakfast at Beidler Elementary School.
Every Friday, dance music reverberates through the halls of Beidler Elementary School in Chicago’s East Garfield Park community.

“Welcome to Fitness Friday!” a voice booms over the PA system, between tracks. For 10 minutes, students and teachers dance up and down the halls, waving their arms and singing along to the music.

Fitness Friday may seem like pure fun, but for Principal Charles Anderson, the activity is part of a larger commitment to healthy living.

“The students really enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a good way to start Fridays, by getting everyone up and moving.”

Another aspect of that commitment to health is a focus on nutrition. To that end, Beidler is part of the National School Breakfast Program, serving meals to nearly 330 students each day.

“You just can’t teach kids if they’re hungry. They can’t focus,” Principal Anderson said.

Breakfast is especially important in East Garfield Park, where the child poverty rate is a stunning 55 percent.

“Many of these students wouldn’t be getting breakfast if they didn’t get it here,” he said.

This is the school’s fourth year as part of the National School Breakfast Program.

“Our scores continue to rise and I think you can attribute that in part to our activities and our breakfast initiative,” he said.

Beidler’s breakfast program encourages a family atmosphere, as students gather in the school’s cafeteria before school to socialize and eat.

“We try to create a culture by making sure kids are eating a healthy breakfast, exercising and having fun,” Principal Anderson said.

According to the most recent school breakfast data, more than 473,000 free and reduced-price breakfasts were served at schools in East Garfield Park in 2013, including approximately 59,000 at Beidler Elementary.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The 1 in 5: A mother's story

Tanya Lee met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to share her WIC success story.

For Tanya Lee, the WIC program was nothing short of life-changing: it helped her break her cycle of poverty.

Tanya grew up in a single-parent household after her father left her mother. Without a steady income, the family ended up living in government subsidized housing.

“It wasn’t a great environment to grow up in,” Tanya said.

When she was 15, Tanya became pregnant with her son, DeAngelo. She was working a part-time job, but was still struggling to make ends meet. Unsure how she was going to feed her son, she turned to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

“The WIC program really allowed me to get on my feet,” she said.

WIC provides nutrition education, counseling and food from pregnancy until the child is five.

“As a young mom who didn’t know a lot about nutrition, the WIC program trained me,” Tanya said.

In addition to being a critical source of nutritious food for her young son – food that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford – the WIC program enabled Tanya to pursue a future she didn’t think was reachable.

“The WIC program allowed me to go to school, to dream bigger,” she said.

Tanya finished high school, and because WIC helped with her grocery budget, she was able to enroll in college.

“My focus was always to feed my kids, but if I didn’t have WIC my education wouldn’t have been as much of a priority,” she said.

Tanya graduated with a double major in social work and criminal justice. She went on to get her master’s degree in 2009. Now, she is a successful non-profit consultant, runs a food pantry, and hopes to open her own social service organization.

She knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without the WIC program’s assistance nearly 30 years ago.

“If the WIC program didn’t exist, I’d probably be in a dead-end job right now. But that’s not the case. The WIC program opened the door for me,” Tanya said.

Tanya recently joined nearly 30 Greater Chicago Food Depository advocates in Washington, D.C. for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, where she told her story to lawmakers.

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.