Friday, May 22, 2015

The 1 in 5: 'They don't get breakfast at home'

Students eat breakfast at Caroline Sibley Elementary School in Calumet City. The school serves meals to approximately 650 students each day.

Three years ago, staff at Caroline Sibley Elementary School in Calumet City instituted the National School Breakfast Program after arriving at a disheartening realization.

“Our kids are hungry.”

1 in 3 children in Calumet City is at risk of hunger. Shelly Davis-Jones, the superintendent of District 149, knows that reality perhaps better than anyone.

“I do a lot of home visits to talk to parents and check in on kids,” she said. “Our kids aren’t eating. Food is scarce. I’ve seen refrigerators with nothing in them.”

In many households, healthy options are limited.

“These kids rely on meals at school,” Shelly said.

The school breakfast program offers breakfast before school and breakfast in the classroom. The program serves approximately 650 students per day, or 81 percent of the school’s eligible students, which is well over the state’s target participation rate of 70 percent.

“For many of these students, breakfast on a Monday is the first substantial meal that these children are getting in two days,” Shelly said. “They look forward to coming in because they don’t get breakfast at home.”

The benefits of breakfast before school are easy to see, especially for the teachers who are with the students all day.

“Before we had breakfast in the classroom, you’d have kids coming in each morning crying or putting their heads down because their stomach hurt,” said Suzette Ojermark, a third-grade teacher at the school. “With breakfast here, they’re getting something they wouldn’t normally get.”

But, it’s not just teachers that are speaking up about the importance of breakfast. When the school made the transition to the program three years ago, it was the students who helped lead the charge, giving a presentation about the importance of the program to the district’s Board of Education.

Their message was simple, according to Shelly.

“Breakfast is so important to getting the brain going,” she said. “How can you focus on an empty stomach?”

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Food Depository prepares response to summer hunger

The Lunch Bus distributes meals to children during the summer at 21 stops throughout Cook County. The program is just one way the Food Depository is addressing summer hunger.

For children, hunger does not end during the summer.

Amanda Yepez is the Kids Cafe coordinator at Casa Juan Diego, a Greater Chicago Food Depository program in Pilsen. During the school year, her site serves meals to more than 50 children. During the summer, that number practically doubles.

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

Ricardo Marines, Casa Juan Diego’s assistant director, knows that many children struggle to access food when school is out.

“Summer isn’t fun and games for all children. Some wake up hungry without a meal at school,” he said.

During the school year, many children receive free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school. But in the summer, only 14 percent of eligible children in Illinois utilize free meals.

This summer, the Food Depository will sponsor approximately 300 summer meal sites, including Kids Cafes, the Lunch Bus and the Department of Family and Support Service’s Summer Nutrition Program. Through those programs, the Food Depository aims to distribute more than 400,000 meals this summer.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The 1 in 5: A meal, homework and a puppet show

Kids Cafes distribute healthy meals to children, such as this whole wheat pasta salad, fruit cup and milk at the Lakeview YMCA.

On a recent Thursday, an impromptu puppet show was breaking out at the Lakeview YMCA in Chicago. The stage – a sheet of cardboard with a square cut out of the middle – was set up on two chairs. A group of children anxiously huddled around the front, playfully giggling and waiting for the show to begin. Two more crouched behind the cardboard, controlling the puppets – paper cut outs on popsicle sticks. The stick figures appeared, and the children cheered with delight.

This scene is not uncommon at the Lakeview YMCA. Children play basketball, do homework and socialize – the program coordinators know it’s important for them to work and play together. But just as important is the meal that the Lakeview YMCA – a Greater Chicago Food Depository Kids Cafe site – provides after school.

“I know we have families who rely on these meals,” said Lily Smith Richards, the Lakeview YMCA’s Youth and Family Manager.

The site serves meals to approximately 40 children per day, ages 5 to 13. Most families with children enrolled in the program include at least one parent who is working, Lilly said.

“I know that the Kids Cafe is important to a lot of these families,” she said.

Lily knows one of the most crucial aspects of the program is access to healthy food, which she sees the direct benefits of.

“The quality of food they get is important,” she said. “I can see that the kids’ mental capacity is a lot better after they’ve eaten. They’re more ready to do homework and concentrate.”

Programs like the Kids Cafe are part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is funded by the federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which is slated to expire in September. With 1 in 5 children at risk of hunger in Cook County, the Act’s funding for these programs must be protected. For more stories about the impact of children’s programs, visit

'We lifted our voices and lawmakers were listening'

Advocates gather in front of the Illinois State Capitol on Lobby Day in Springfield.
The morning sun glinted off the Illinois State Capitol dome in Springfield as a growing sea of anti-hunger advocates in blue shirts gathered below. Busload after busload, their numbers swelled to more than 250. Packed beneath the bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln on the Capitol’s steps, a chant began.

“End hunger now!”

That was the start of Lobby Day, an annual event that gathers advocates from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and other organizations from across Illinois in Springfield to discuss the issue of hunger with lawmakers.

This year, advocates encouraged legislators to improve children’s access to School Breakfast by co-sponsoring and supporting the 2015 School Breakfast resolution, which promotes alternative breakfast models. They also asked lawmakers to support SB 1847, which would increase SNAP eligibility by raising income limits. And, advocates suggested elected officials promote summer meals and visit a child nutrition site.

“The energy was great at Hunger Summit and Lobby Day,” said Sarah Greenberg, the program and community outreach manager at a Food Depository member agency in Uptown. “I felt like we lifted our voices and lawmakers were listening.”

Scott Best, the coordinator at Common Pantry in the North Center neighborhood, called the conference "motivating and inspiring."

"Any time we can make a big splash with a large group of people, I feel like that will stick in lawmakers' heads. It will make the issue more memorable for them," he said.

In total, the group met with more than 90 lawmakers in less than two hours. In addition to the Hunger Summit and Lobby Day, Food Depository advocates annually attend the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

Check out photos from the trips to Springfield and Washington, D.C., learn more about the Food Depository's advocacy agenda and watch a video recap of the trips at

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Regular Tyson chicken donation provides critical source of protein

Protein is a core item that the Greater Chicago Food Depository offers to its member agencies. But, because of increasing prices, it is one of the more difficult items for the Food Depository to obtain. However, a generous recurring donation from Tyson Foods, Inc. has made chicken more available to our network that serves hungry men, women and children in our community.

Since December 2012, Tyson has donated more than 682,000 pounds of chicken leg quarters to the Food Depository. The chicken, which is distributed at children’s programs in addition to pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, is an important part of the Food Depository’s response to hunger.

“For the 1 in 6 people in Cook County turning to the Food Depository’s network each year, chicken is often a luxury that families cannot afford,” said Gerry Maguire, Food Depository vice president of supply chain. “Tyson’s donations ensure that food insecure families will have access to more high-quality protein throughout our community.”

“Tyson is extremely proud of the continued impact our donations make for struggling households served by the Greater Chicago Food Depository,” said Greg Lancelot, VP Sales and Marketing Tyson Foods McDonald’s Business Unit. “As a food company, we believe that nobody should go hungry and that is why we are committed to the fight against hunger in our communities.”

Since the donations began, more than 100 member agencies have received the chicken at no cost. One such agency, a women’s shelter Humboldt Park, recently received eight cases of the product.

“We have about 25 women at the shelter at any given time,” said Ethel Johnson, a volunteer at Leslie’s Place. “Chicken is a nutritious product and our residents really enjoy it.”

Leslie’s Place serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to residents every day, so a variety of protein is important.

“We use the chicken in meals at least once a day,” Ethel said. “We really need it.”

In addition to recurring chicken donations, Tyson generously contributed $100,000 to the Food Depository’s hunger relief initiatives this year and is a Premier Sponsor of the 30th Annual Hunger Walk on Saturday, June 20.
For more information about food industry donations, visit

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.”