Friday, September 27, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Changing life plans

Shevel Pickett receives food from the Maple Morgan Park Food Pantry.
Shevel Pickett and her husband own a home and a car. They live in the Morgan Park neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago, amongst Victorian-style homes and shaded streets. Five years ago, Shevel would never have expected to be in need of help from a food pantry. Instead, she was hoping to be well on her way to retirement by 2013.

But, Shevel’s plans had to be put on hold when she was laid off from her job in human resources in 2008. She has been working temporary assignments sporadically ever since, but has not found another full-time position.

“I’ve heard people use the phrase, ‘Too young to retire, too old to get hired,’” she said. “It’s hard because it seems like people are looking for younger employees and not me.”

Shevel receives unemployment and her husband is on disability, but the couple still can barely afford food. Once a month, they go to the Maple Morgan Park Food Pantry.

“The pantry has been a wonder,” she said. “It helps a great deal. I’m able to make meals that end up lasting a long time.”

For pantry director Lillian Hennings, seeing people like Shevel at the pantry is a common occurrence.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in our numbers over the last few years,” she said. “The need is significant in this community and the economy is bad. It’s tough to get a job right now, so people come to the pantry.” 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kate Maehr's SNAP Challenge: Days 6 & 7

For breakfast, Kate has been eating plain oatmeal with water.
This week, as part of Hunger Action Month, Greater Chicago Food Depository Executive Director and CEO Kate Maehr is taking the SNAP Challenge. She is eating on just $35 worth of food for seven days – the average weekly benefit for an individual using SNAP in Illinois.

I have one full day left in the SNAP Challenge, and while I’m glad there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s sobering to realize that for so many of our neighbors, there is no defined end to hunger. For many, the question of, “how will I get my next meal?” is a constant companion. I will wake up Sunday and the Challenge will be over. For the 1 in 6 food insecure individuals in our community, it will start all over again.

The final days of the Challenge are often the most difficult for me. I feel worn down – physically and mentally. I’m barely getting enough calories, and it’s fatiguing to be constantly figuring out how to stretch what little food I have left.

My meals will continue to be bland and minimal. My game plan is to eat oatmeal with water for breakfast (as I’ve done all week), peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and maybe a can of soup for dinner tonight and pasta with the tomato on Saturday.

Looking back on my Challenge week, I was especially struck by how convenience is no longer an option when living on a SNAP budget. It’s critical to schedule your time appropriately, or else you risk not eating. For example, I worked until 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. I was hoping to eat beans for dinner, but quickly realized I forgot to soak them in water before I left in the morning, so I had to wait for two hours while they soaked before I could eat. I couldn’t just pick something up to eat instead, because I couldn’t afford it. Essentially, you have to plan your life around your meals, constructing your day around when you eat, and what you eat. It is stressful.

As I wrap up the Challenge, I feel this week has been especially impactful considering the U.S. House’s vote to cut $40 billion from the SNAP program on Thursday. If made law, this proposal would cut an estimated 4-6 million individuals from the program. They’d be losing their first line of defense against hunger. This is a program that we must fight to protect. SNAP is a way for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in our community and across the country to get back on their feet and take control of their lives. It is a trampoline to a brighter future.

I encourage you to take the SNAP Challenge, and as Hunger Action Month continues, get involved in the fight against hunger in our community.

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Supporting multiple generations

Lillian White receives groceries from St. Cyprian's Food Pantry.
Lillian White paused before pushing her cart full of groceries out the door of St. Cyprian’s Food Pantry on the northwest side of Chicago. It was raining heavily, and she hoped it would slow down enough for her to load her car.

She carried a whole chicken, ground beef, fresh fruit, canned goods, cereal, and other assorted items from the food pantry.

“This helps me feed everyone,” she said. “Sometimes, you just don’t have any money for food. That’s basically where we are.”

Lillian, 68, lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and their two children. While the parents do work, bills have overburdened the family, and they are now on the verge of losing their home.  There is little money left over to buy food.

“I try to make the best of everything I get at the pantry,” she said. “We stretch it over the course of a month and it really helps.”

St. Cyprian’s serves more than 600 families per month – many with at least one person who has a job.

“The economy is so bad right now, you just can’t do anything,” Lillian said. “We have to eat. We wouldn’t be able to afford food if it weren’t for the pantry.”

As the rain calms, Lillian pushes her cart out to her car, sloshing through the parking lot.

“So many people think that if you’re coming to a food pantry, you’re poor. You’re homeless. But that’s not the case. Nowadays it’s because you just can’t make ends meet, and that’s us.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kate Maehr's SNAP Challenge: Days 1 & 2

Kate's groceries for the week.
This week, as part of Hunger Action Month, Greater Chicago Food Depository Executive Director and CEO Kate Maehr is taking the SNAP Challenge. She is eating on just $35 worth of food for seven days – the average weekly benefit for an individual using SNAP in Illinois. Kate will share her thoughts and experiences as she continues through the Challenge.

On Saturday, I went grocery shopping for my SNAP Challenge week, armed with my menu plan and a shopping list. I’ve learned from past SNAP Challenges that you need to buy your necessities first.  If you have money to spare, you can swing back to the fresh produce, deli and other perishables that many of us take for granted. 

I spent almost double the amount of time I usually do in the store.  Between the back tracking and checking the shelves closely for the best price and then tallying the price, it takes extra time. I was at a store that uses a shopper “preferred” card.  I was able to use that card to take advantage of sales, but you quickly realize that sales or “best buys” can be out of reach because of their size.  For instance, I saw a bulk pack of chicken thighs on sale for $9. The package was double the size of the one I ultimately bought for $6.  I didn’t have the $3 to spare.

At the checkout counter, the strawberry jelly I had purchased as my last “splurge” item didn’t ring up for the sale price I was certain it was supposed to be.  And because of that, my total was $35.40.  I asked the checkout clerk about the sale price and she explained the sign on the shelf might have been wrong.  So, I had to have her take the jelly off. Total bill = $32.24.  I’m hoping today I can stop by a store and find a small jar of jelly for less than $2.76.

I took my food home and I was already wondering how it was going to last me the entire week. I felt worn out just from the process of grocery shopping on such a tight budget, and I hadn’t even started the Challenge yet!

On Sunday, the Challenge began. I had toast with peanut butter and a glass of water for breakfast. By the time I had a can of soup and hardboiled egg for lunch, I was already feeling hungry and fatigued. It could be the lack of caffeine – I couldn’t afford coffee. For dinner, I had two chicken thighs, frozen broccoli and white rice for dinner.

I know this week isn’t going to be easy, but this is something that the 860,670 food insecure individuals in our community struggle with on a daily basis. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and experiences with you as the Challenge continues.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Greater Chicago Food Depository CEO Kate Maehr to take SNAP Challenge

As part of Hunger Action Month, Illinois lawmakers, members of the media, and anti-hunger advocates will raise awareness for the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by taking the SNAP Challenge during the week of Sept. 16-22. The Challenge gives participants a sense of the difficulties faced by the 1 in 6 food insecure individuals in our community who don’t know where their next meal will come from. It requires participants to eat with $35 worth of food for a week, which is the average weekly benefit for an individual using SNAP in Illinois.

Kate Maehr, Food Depository Executive Director and CEO, will take the Challenge.

“Living on only $35 of food for a week is a daunting task, but it’s something that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children constantly struggle with in our community.”

For updates on Kate’s progress all week, follow @FoodDepository on Twitter, like the FoodDepository on Facebook and check back in with the blog.

The Challenge comes at a critical time in the fight against hunger. A new U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows 49 million Americans were food insecure in 2012, which is a 4 percent increase in U.S. food insecurity over the past decade. In Cook County, 860,670 men, women and children are food insecure.

Despite the increased need, lawmakers are considering a cut of up to $40 billion from the SNAP program. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if passed, this action would remove 4-6 million individuals from SNAP nationwide, effectively eliminating their first line of defense against hunger. Food banks such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository would not be able to fill the gap in food assistance that such a move would create.

Individuals taking the Challenge in addition to Kate include Bob Aiken, Feeding America CEO, Illinois Reps. Sara Feigenholtz and Norine Hammond, Illinois Sen. Jackie Collins, Natalie Moore and Monica Eng of WBEZ, and Kim Kirchherr, nutritionist for ABC 7.

For SNAP Challenge guidelines, visit

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'We were used to one meal a day'

Jill and Chester have been coming to the Niles Township Pantry for nearly two years.
Jill Brenner and her son Chester take a cab to the Niles Township Food Pantry in Skokie twice a month. It’s a stretch for them to pay the cab fare, but if they didn’t go, they wouldn’t eat.

“Before we started coming here, we were used to one meal a day, because that’s all we could afford,” Chester said.

Jill has been on disability for the last five years. Previously, she was an accountant. Her son is also disabled, after having multiple heart surgeries. Jill is not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits because of what she receives from disability. But, she still has difficulty affording food because most of her income is spent on rent.

“Food is not cheap these days,” Jill said. “It has been rough the last couple of years for us, but the pantry has been a godsend.”

Jill and Chester regularly receive meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned goods, and bread from the pantry, which serves approximately 3,000 families per month.

“It’s been a lifesaver for us, literally,” Jill said.

For Chester, 21, the pantry is not only a source of nutritious food; it is a way to build strength and confidence.

“It definitely saved the holidays for us last year, because we wouldn’t have had any food otherwise. But besides just the holidays, on a monthly basis, it lets me feel pride and gives me a sense of hope.”

Friday, September 6, 2013

Get involved during Hunger Action Month

September is Hunger Action Month, which is dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing action for the fight against hunger. This yearly effort by anti-hunger advocates arrives as the need for food assistance continues to reach record levels in Cook County, and across the United States. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report stating approximately 49 million individuals nationwide were food insecure at some point in 2012. The report also shows a 4 percent increase in U.S. food insecurity in the last decade. And, data released in June by Feeding America showed there are 860,670 food insecure men, women, and children in Cook County. This means 1 in 6 of our neighbors don’t know where their next meal will come from.

If we work together, we can make a difference in the fight against hunger. Join the Greater Chicago Food Depository during Hunger Action Month as we put into action our belief that no one should go hungry in our community. Here are some ways to get involved:

1. Visit to find contact information for your elected officials and to sign up to receive Food Depository advocacy alerts.
2. Organize a group of volunteers to make phone calls to Members of Congress to communicate the importance of protecting federal nutrition programs.
3. Spread the word. Stay active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to maintain awareness in your community. Connect with other supporters by using the hashtag #HungerActionMonth on Twitter.
4. Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper about hunger in your community.
5.  Organize a local food drive and encourage other community organizations to participate.
6. Like the Food Depository on Facebook and follow @FoodDepository on Twitter. 
7. Attend a neighborhood, city, or county meeting and tell attendees about Hunger Action Month.
8. Take the SNAP Challenge, and learn how difficult it is to survive on a limited food budget of $35 for the week of Sept. 16-22. Encourage others in your community to try as well.

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Working full-time, still struggling to eat

Laura Grabfelder and her daughter Mackenzie receive food from Operation Blessing Food Pantry once per month.
Four-year-old Mackenzie skipped up to the front door of the Operation Blessing Food Pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency in south suburban Crestwood, on a sunny Thursday morning. In one hand, she held her mother’s pointer finger, and with the other she carried a plastic bag full of fluffy dolls.

“Here you go!” she grinned, emphatically handing the bag to a pantry volunteer, eager to make her donation. Today, Mackenzie is at the pantry to drop off the dolls. Yesterday, she was at the pantry with her mother, Laura Grabfelder, to get food.

Laura has been coming to the pantry once a month for more than a year. She has a full-time job at an insurance company, but still has trouble supporting herself and Mackenzie.

“I barely make enough to pay rent or pay for much else let alone food,” Laura said. “Getting food from the pantry is a big help.”

Laura recently got a 50 cent per hour raise at work, which equates to approximately $80 more per month for the family. Because of the raise, Laura’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits dropped from $200 per month to only $27 per month.

“It’s tough to get by, even with the job,” she said. “In fact, after this, we’ll be stopping at a few thrift stores to get clothes for Mackenzie, because she’s going into preschool this year.”

The pantry serves more than 1,000 people per month.

“There’s always a need in this community,” said pantry assistant John Whithall. “Some people that come here have degrees, but can’t find jobs. There’s just nothing available.”

With support from the Food Depository, Operation Blessing served 50,000 people last year. While addressing a massive need in the community, they never lose sight of small donations like Mackenzie’s.

After dropping off the dolls, John handed Mackenzie some peanut butter crackers, which she happily grabbed. She took a bite and her blue eyes lit up.

“This is the first time she’s had peanut butter,” Laura said. “That’s why this pantry means so much to us.”