Thursday, January 30, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Friendship and food

Once a month, Luisa and Marie come to the Greater Chicago Food Depository's Producemobile distribution in Chicago Heights.
Luisa and Marie are best friends. They live on the same street in Chicago Heights and their children go to the same school. They have a lot in common – including the fact that they are both struggling to afford food.

“The money I have left over each month is so little for food,” said Marie, who is looking for a job, while her husband works 60 hours per week as a steel worker to support their 14-year-old daughter and two sons.

Meanwhile, Luisa’s situation is similar. She is trying to find work so that she can support her two children, after being laid off from a job in a supermarket.

“Before I eat, I make sure that my kids eat, because sometimes we don’t have enough for everyone,” said Luisa. “And if I don’t get anything, I’ll wait for the next day. That’s just how it works out.”

On the fourth Thursday of every month, Marie picks up Luisa and they go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Producemobile distribution at the Chicago Heights Park District building.

“Spinach, kale, tomatoes, most produce is too expensive for me to afford at the store,” said Marie. “I just have to walk right by it. Which is why it’s helpful to get healthy food at the Producemobile.”

For Luisa, receiving fresh produce at the distribution is critical, especially in the winter.

“My food budget becomes minimal when I’m paying for utilities. Sometimes I’ll pay only half of my utility bill just to afford food,” she said.

Ultimately, the Producemobile not only fills a need for food in Luisa and Marie’s lives, it also reminds them that friendship can help weather any situation.

“This is a humbling experience, no question,” Marie said. “But it’s better when we can come together.”

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Advocacy Update January 2014

For the past few months, a conference committee made up of members of the U.S. House and Senate has been meeting to construct a Farm Bill that would be agreed upon by both full chambers. This week, the committee released a proposal that contains a $8.6 billion cut over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). On Wednesday, the House voted to approve the plan. 

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure later this week or early next week. If the Senate approves the plan, and President Barack Obama signs it into law, the SNAP cut will affect 850,000 people in 16 states, with an average benefit reduction of $90 per month, resulting in 3.2 million lost meals over 10 years.

The Food Depository was disappointed to learn of this cut to a critical federal nutrition program, especially at a time of great need in the United States. The impact of the cut is magnified by the recent expiration of SNAP stimulus funding, which resulted in a nationwide reduction in SNAP benefits averaging $36 for a family of four.

In addition to providing food for those who need it in our community, the Food Depository will continue to advocate for strong nutrition programs and is already looking ahead to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization process, which is expected to begin later this year. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Struggling after surgery

Lavinia Woolridge leaned against a wall inside the Robert Crown Center in Evanston, surrounded by nearly 200 people. Some laughed and chatted. Children scampered across the floor. A woman walked past Lavinia with a babbling baby in her arms. But, Lavinia wasn’t hearing any of it. She was concentrating. Finally, she looked up and smiled.

“29 years,” she said. “That’s how long I was a nurse.”

Lavinia, 60, might still be working if she hadn’t hurt her back and needed two surgeries to repair it. But because of that injury, she was on disability. She was struggling to afford food, which is why she was at the Robert Crown Center, waiting for the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Producemobile distribution to begin.

“This helps a lot because I’m on a fixed income and I’m very limited in what I can buy at the store,” Lavinia said.

She’s been coming to the Producemobile for nearly a year. On that day, she was receiving oranges, apples, mangos, broccoli, potatoes, bread and more. As a nurse, she knows how important nutritious food is to good health.

“With this, I supplement what I can’t afford otherwise,” Lavinia said. “I love salad, but I can’t afford to buy all the ingredients, which is why it helps to get some here.”

The need is high in Evanston. Lavinia arrived 45 minutes before the distribution began, hoping to be at the front of the line. She received ticket number 157.

“The way the economy is now, people don’t have jobs,” she said. “This kind of thing comes in handy. Everything helps, and by the grace of God, I’m still going.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'I used to help people, now I need the help'

Anthony Robinson visits St. Sylvester food pantry in Logan Square to get the food he needs when his SNAP benefits run out.
Anthony Robinson knows two sides of hunger.

Formerly a full-time social services case aide for drug and alcohol abuse clients, he connected people with the services and food assistance they needed. Anthony was a lifeline for those with nowhere else to turn.

In August, Anthony lost his job. Now, he needs a lifeline.

“I used to help people every single day,” he said. “Now I need the help.”

He applied for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and receives $189 every month. While SNAP is a big help, Anthony still has trouble affording all the food he needs.

“At the end of the day, SNAP just really isn’t enough to live on,” he said.

Anthony found his lifeline in the form of the St. Sylvester Catholic Church food pantry in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. On a recent Wednesday, Anthony received a bag of food at the pantry, including fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen meat, and nonperishable items.

“This will last me a couple weeks,” he said. “Which is great, because right now I don’t have enough money to go to the supermarket.”

Anthony isn’t trying to use the pantry often, only when he absolutely needs it. In the meantime, he’s searching for a job, and he’s been in this position before.

“Twenty years ago, I was homeless for a while. I lost my job and got a divorce around the same time, and I was out on the street,” he said. “But, I turned it all around. I got into social service, and I’ll turn it around this time too.”

Friday, January 10, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Staying warm

At a recent trip to Elijah's Pantry, John received apples, potatoes, onions, plus meat, cereal and canned items.

John Palos lives on $1,075 per month.

That’s how much the 54-year-old from Logan Square receives from disability. Take out $600 for rent, and John has less than $500 to spend on groceries and other necessities for the month. John can’t afford to pay his gas bill, so to make ends meet, he asked the utility company to shut it off.

“I can only afford the electric bill,” he said. "I need money for food."

John heats his basement apartment with an electric heater because he can’t afford to pay for the gas furnace. He receives fresh fruit, vegetables, and a large bag of nonperishable items once a month at Elijah’s Pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository agency near his home.

“I wouldn’t be able to afford fruit and vegetables without this,” John said. “This makes my budget possible, especially in the winter.”

Before going on disability, John managed a restaurant. He’s beginning to look for a new job, but while he does, he’ll wait out the winter, knowing food is available when he needs it at Elijah’s Pantry.

“Bottom line, this helps me make it on a monthly basis, and I don’t know where I’d be without it. Probably cold, and hungry.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Army National Guard Veteran fights hunger with Food Depository, AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps member Tamara Jordan, third from left, with U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), far left, and AmeriCorps Director Bill Basl, far right.
Since 2009, the Greater Chicago Food Depository has been hosting AmeriCorps members through the AmeriCorps State/National Program. The individuals are placed at the Food Depository or in member agencies and are utilized to assist with day-to-day pantry operations, community volunteer recruitment and retention, fundraising and nutrition and health education. The following post is an update from AmeriCorps member Tamara Jordan, who is currently serving on the Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach Team, focusing on veteran outreach.

In 2006 I made a decision that would change my life. I joined the Army National Guard. I was an honor student at Hyde Park Career Academy, and planned to attend Loyola University. But, I quickly realized that the cost of college would be difficult to manage, so I looked for other options. A recruiter called my home phone a few days later and asked me if I was interested in enlisting in the military. About a year later, I was on my way to Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan. I spent a year there, and in that time I began to realize I wanted to help people in the United States. I wanted to do something to help beyond my military service.
I didn’t have the opportunity to do that until a few months ago, when my friend presented the idea of AmeriCorps to me. I’m now working on the Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach team, utilizing the experiences I gained from the military to target a group of people that is often underserved: veterans. After visiting veteran hospitals and seeing how many veterans are homeless and hungry, I saw it as a chance to make a difference - especially because the veteran population is at a high-risk for hunger. In fact, in Cook County there are more than 18,000 veterans living below the poverty line, and that number is expected to increase considerably in the next few years.

On the SNAP Outreach team, I visit both Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital twice a month to help veterans apply for SNAP benefits. I also folow up with clients to check on their enrollment status, and to assist clients with re-applying to the program. I am able to incorporate my knowledge of the veteran population into my experience, and I see firsthand the impact that SNAP Outreach makes.

Recently, I helped National Guard Unit soldiers apply for SNAP. From my experience, I know that many soldiers and veterans find it difficult to accept assistance from other people. As a veteran, I was able to reassure the National Guard soldiers and connect with them. I was able to break down the ingrained misconception that receiving assistance meant they had failed. Ultimately, I was able to comfort them and let them know applying for SNAP would be beneficial and would make affording healthy food easier for them.

I also offer SNAP Outreach to veterans outside of VA hospitals. I recently worked with a group called Vietnow, which passes out food, clothes, and blankets to homeless veterans in Chicago. At their distributions, I have given veterans information on the Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach program, so they know where to turn if they ever wanted to apply for benefits.

As a veteran helping veterans, I’ve seen the startling amount of need in Cook County. Yet, I’ve also seen the huge impact the Food Depository makes through SNAP Outreach. It’s humbling to know we’re giving veterans in need a way to feed themselves and their families.

Friday, January 3, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'The pantry has been a lifesaver'

Colleen Chavez and her husband are getting back on their feet.
Seven years ago, Colleen Chavez’s life took a turn she never expected: she lost her job. Colleen used to work in a warehouse 36 hours per week, putting together boxes. She and her husband were making good money to support their four children. Soon after Colleen was laid off in 2007, her husband also lost his job as a carpenter. Without any income, and for the first time in their lives unsure of their future, the couple needed to turn to food assistance to feed their family.

They found the Union Avenue Food Pantry in Canaryville soon after.

“The pantry has literally been a lifesaver,” Colleen said. “I get stuff there that goes a really long way, like chicken, beans, rice, eggs - all the necessities.”

Since she was laid off, Colleen has been unable to find a new job. But, her husband had more success – he was just hired in a machine shop. He’s now working six days a week, waking up early and staying late to help the family.

“We’re trying to get back on our feet right now,” Colleen said. “We’re just making it with our gas and electric bills, but it’s pretty tight.”

Colleen volunteers at Union Avenue once or twice a month, but she dedicates most of her days to job searching. In fact, she is usually up by 2:30 a.m. to start the search online, before getting her children off to school.

“Don’t ask me how I do it. I just have to. It’s a must. I need a job desperately right now to help support my family,” she said. “But the pantry gives us that little extra that lets us keep our heads up.”