Thursday, March 31, 2011

Breakfast in the Classroom

Fulfilling our hunger-relief mission stretches beyond our warehouse on the Southwest Side. One of the chief means for alleviating hunger is through federally funded nutrition programs. The Greater Chicago Food Depository, and the people we serve, must tap all of the resources available if we are to provide food for hungry people while striving to end hunger in our community. Schools are a key part of the frontline against child hunger. That's why we applaud Chicago Public Schools and the Board of Education for enacting Breakfast in the Classroom for all Chicago elementary schools in January.

Children represent 37 percent of the people served annually by the Food Depository, or 250,000 children under the age of 18. Research shows that proper nutrition and academic performance are inextricably linked. In a recent study conducted by the Food Depository, 45 percent of children missed a main meal in their last 24 hours.

Illinois' school breakfast participation rate is 46th in the nation, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Chicago is ranked 22nd (out of 29 urban school districts) in school breakfast participation; Chicago ranked dead last in school breakfast participation until CPS offered Breakfast in the Classroom. FRAC statistics show that CPS served breakfast to an additional 32,000 low-income students per day as it increased the number of schools participating in Breakfast in the Classroom to 182 in the 2009-2010 school year. Further, in this time of fiscal uncertainty at the city and state level, school breakfast costs are reimbursed by the federal government.

Thank you to CPS for helping children have the fuel they need to learn.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Goya gives

Food donations are the foundation of food banking. But the Greater Chicago Food Depository's recent history shows that food donations are becoming a smaller percentage of our sourcing. In 2006-2007, 62 percent of our food receipts came from food donations. By 2009-2010, 52 percent came from food donations. Food distributors, manufacturers and wholesalers are simply becoming more efficient in a challenging market.

So far the decreases have been off-set by food from the federal government, but federal food may not be as steady a source for much longer. That's why Goya Foods' donation of 75,000 pounds of food on Wednesday was so important. Because of Goya, the Food Depository received two truckloads laden with long grain rice, pink beans, red beans, chick peas, black beans and pinto beans--all high-quality, nutritious, low-sodium products. In coming days and weeks, the food will be distributed to our network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters and provided to people in need across Cook County.

Thank you to Goya Foods for its generous donation in honor of its 75th anniversary--donations that totaled 1 million pounds nationwide on Wednesday. And thank you to United Way of Metropolitan Chicago for helping to make it happen. Food donations are an outstanding anniversary gift for Cook County's hunger-relief programs. Photo by Charlie Westerman.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lobbying for hunger relief in Illinois: Day Two at the Feeding Illinois Conference and Lobby Day in Springfield

Everyone was up bright and early the next morning, excited to meet with legislators and tell the stories of their communities. Participants met in smaller, two- to five-person groups by the legislative district in which their program is located. Groups reviewed their meeting schedule and talking points over breakfast.

In light of the budget crisis in Illinois, lobbyists aimed to raise awareness about legislation that would benefit Illinois’ hungry families without any added financial burden to the state, such as inviting legislators to join the Anti-Hunger Caucus and support a bill that would help divert more eggs—a nutrient rich, but rarely donated, item—to Illinois food banks.

I asked Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, a member of the Food Depository, if I could tag along with their group for their first meeting of the day with their representative, Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park).

As I sat down with the group, pantry executive director Kathy Russell continued down the list of meetings planned for the day. Kathy and her team had done their homework on each and knew what West Side neighborhoods they represented and how many clients the pantry served from each area. When asked if they had any specific stories from their pantry to share with legislators who had not seen the pantry in action, Michele Zurakowski nodded.

“We stayed open the night of the blizzard,” said Michele, director of operations at the pantry. “We served 15 families that night, including a working mother of five. She was stressed out that schools would be closed for the next two days and her children wouldn’t be able to get school lunches so she had to come up with enough food for 30 meals. It was one of those times where you realize this is why we are here.”

“If people are coming to pantry in a blizzard, they really need the help,” Kathy added.

Lobbying for hunger relief in Illinois: Day One at the Feeding Illinois Conference and Lobby Day in Springfield

Last week, more than 60 Greater Chicago Food Depository staff, volunteers and member agency representatives traveled to Springfield for the two-day Second Annual Feeding Illinois Anti-Hunger Conference and Lobby Day. We were joined by hunger-relief supporters from all eight Feeding Illinois member food banks, as well as other food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters from across Illinois. Our charge was to learn more about legislative issues affecting hunger relief and raise awareness about the thousands of men, woman and children that struggle with hunger every day in our state.

To kick things off, participants gathered at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Hotel and Conference Center for a panel discussion covering the ongoing efforts of federal, state, private and community organizations to fight hunger, and what to expect during meetings with legislators the following day. Panelists included: Sarah Coffer, vice president of United Way of McLean County; Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park); Grace Hou, assistant secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services; Andy Kulczycki, director of Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County; Tracy Smith, state director of Feeding Illinois; and Jason Wetzel, director of public affairs and government relations of Walmart. The keynote was given by Jerry Stermer of the office of the governor and provided background on the state budget deficit and the financial challenges facing the state.

Below are just a few snippets from the panel discussion:
“Our staff was struck by how many clients mentioned how many phone calls, how many contacts they had to go through to get someone to answer their questions [in regards to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” Andy Kulczycki, director of the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County.
“Everyone is absolutely necessary to ending hunger. Community and state agencies can’t do it alone, legislators can’t do it alone, philanthropies can’t do it alone. But we can do it together. The question is whether or not we will,”Grace Hou, assistant secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
“There is an ongoing debate on what the overall size and scope of government should be. But if government is not instrumental in ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry, we’re doing it wrong,” Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park).

At the conclusion of the panel, participants chose break-out sessions to attend, each focusing on a specific topic. I stopped by the “Spotlight on Agencies,” led by Bob Koenegstein, director of the Chester Area Christian Food Pantry, a member of the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Bob shared a new initiative of his pantry, a monthly mobile “food fair.” The group, which included several other food pantries and food banks, discussed best practices of their mobile programs and there was a lively discussion on the logistics of allowing clients to choose their own items and bypass food they may not use or need. Several pantries shared that having a choice gave clients dignity and eliminated waste with everyone only taking the food they needed.

Next I joined a session covering SNAP and how agencies can connect their clients with these federal benefits. Pastor Sandra Gillespie of Food Depository member agency Chosen Tabernacle Food Pantry spoke about her experience with the Food Depository SNAP Outreach team that visits the pantry once a month to assist clients with the 11-page application form and to answer questions about the application process.

Pastor Gillespie explained that she decided to learn more about SNAP as a way to help her clients regain a sense of dignity. “[SNAP] is an opportunity [for the client] to do some things on their own. It allows them to go to the store and get what they need,” she said. “It’s about making a difference in the lives of our clients.”

To cap off the day, participants were welcomed to the governor’s mansion to recognize three hunger-relief advocates: the 2011 Legislator of the Year Sen. Harmon; Brenda Hanbury, retiring chief of the Bureau of Homeless Services and Supportive Housing, Illinois Department of Human Services; and Dennis Smith, retiring president and CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank. Watch their acceptance speeches below.