5 Unexpected Benefits of Volunteering as a Family

Are you looking for a way to bring your family together? Hoping to find a hobby that can be shared by both the little ones and adults? Volunteering as a family may be just the thing you need. You may know the “feel-good” emotions that come with helping others, but there are even more unexpected ways volunteering will positively affect the whole family: 

  • You’ll feel like you have more time 

People often feel they are too busy to volunteer. Yet, the Harvard Business Review found that giving your time to community causes actually makes you feel like you have more of it. Volunteering makes us feel capable and efficient, inspiring us to make the most of each day.

  • Volunteering has a life-long effect on kids and teenagers 

Volunteering during adolescence has been linked to some major positive effects such as improved grades, reduced drug usage, and  increased self-esteem. These effects aren’t just short-term but have been proved to affect a teen’s well-being in the years to come.   

  • You can live longer if you volunteer regularly  

For adults, volunteering can provide significant physical health benefits. Washington University found that for adults 55 and older who volunteered had better stamina, memory, and maintained overall health longer than others their age. Volunteers are also more likely to look after their own health and are more focused on adding physical activity into their lives.   

  • More time spent with family 

Families who volunteer together have the unique experience of working toward a shared goal. You may even learn that your child has a talent or interest you didn’t know about before. Everyone brings something unique to the table and can connect with each other and the community in a new way. And, there are tasks for every age and ability so all your children, whether eight or 18, can feel proud of their work. 

  • You’ll be happier 

The University of Texas found in a 2003 study that becoming involved in helping your community lowers rates of depression and anxiety. By volunteering, the entire family can benefit from bettering their mental wellness and alleviating stress. 

Save Our Planet and Reduce Food Insecurity … All at the Same Time!

Data show that 1/3 of all food waste is caused by individuals when they eat out or eat at home. Growing and raising food is a very energy and water-intensive project, and discarded food creates greenhouse gases harmful to our environment. Here’s how you can help:

Restaurants

When you sit down, think about the whole meal before you order. Will you want dessert (ask for the dessert menu ahead of time!) And appetizers? And entrees? You can “right-size” your meal. Maybe your party of two orders appetizers, a side vegetable, and a dessert to split. If you are going with a larger group, consider ordering one fewer entree than people.

If you do take food home and eat it for lunch in a day or two (or freeze it and eat it later), then good for you! But how many doggie bags sit in the fridge until it’s time to throw them out?

At Home

The other great place to save is at the grocery store. Here are a few ways you can reduce waste and save money:

  • Always make a list before you go shopping – that way, you won’t buy food duplicates *and* you will probably spend less money
  • Store your food properly. Keep your fridge at 40 degrees F or lower.
  • Serve and eat the most perishable food in the days right after a shopping trip.
  • Not all perishables are created equal. Apples and oranges keep longer than bananas and avocados, especially in hot weather, so go to the supermarket often or buy some of the sturdier perishables as well as the more delicate fruits and veggies.
  • Be sure to buy foods that are stored in different ways. If everything you buy is meant for the fridge, your supermarket haul will probably expire faster than it would if you had also purchased shelf-stable items (pasta, nuts, beans) and direct-to-freezer foods.
  • Moldy food might not be all bad. You can cut mold off of hard cheese and eat the rest.
  • Make a commitment to eating up your leftovers (maybe you have a weekly Leftover Night.) Or, freeze them immediately in meal-sized containers. If you find yourself dumping them six months later, scale back the amounts you prepare.

4 Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Home

Consumer food waste is a worldwide challenge, but a few habits and changes at home can make a huge difference!

1. Compost your leftovers

Do you have a garden? If not, do you know someone who does? If the answer is yes, composting is a terrific way to use your kitchen scraps! Composting speeds up the decomposition process by providing an ideal environment for organisms such as bacteria, worms and fungi, to do their work. With your food scraps, these organisms will produce compost, a nutrient-rich substance often referred to as “black gold,” which can be sprinkled around your plants. It’s the key to a happy and healthy garden!

2. Use meat bones or vegetable scraps to make a broth 

If you have some leftover chicken, beef or pork bones, try making a bone broth! For many years, bone broth has been used in various cultures around the world as a medicinal food. It has many health benefits including its ability to strengthen the kidneys and support digestive health. It’s also a common base for many soups and sauces. All you need to do is drop your bones into a pot and cover it with water. Add a bit of salt to season the broth, along with a couple tablespoons of acid—apple cider vinegar or lemon juice will work—to break down the collagen. Bring the water to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover your pot and let it cook for at least 10-12 hours. Once it has reduced by about a third, you can strain and store your broth in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use it. This works great with vegetable scraps too! 

3. Make your own fertilizer

Composting isn’t the only way to create an amazing fertilizer your plants will love while reducing your food waste. You can also make banana peel tea! If you eat lots of bananas, this tip is for you. Save your peels and put them in an air-tight jar filled with water. Let it sit for one to two weeks and use the resulting liquid to water your plants. Your plants will thank you! 

4. Freeze food to make it last longer

If you like to cook a lot of food at once, don’t let your leftovers go to waste! Freeze them to prevent spoiling. This works great for soups, sauces, seafood, fruit, meat and even milk. If you tend to buy more than you should, this will help to increase your food’s shelf life, ensuring you get your money’s worth. 

A Different Kind of New Year Resolution

Each new year, people worldwide are filled with a newfound optimism in their ability to do better. We see it every January and February – we make resolutions centered around things like losing weight, kicking old habits and taking up new hobbies.

As we come to the end of 2022, many of us are taking time to consider our resolutions with all the good intentions of the new year. No doubt, the typical resolutions of weight loss and healthy eating are great forms of self-improvement. They are full of merit, and it is important for us to take care of our own personal well-being.

However, perhaps this year we can also incorporate resolutions that give back to our community as a whole. Here are three different kinds of resolutions you can make this year to help our neighbors thrive.

1. Teach Our Children about Giving Back

Involve your children in your plans to give back. Organize a community food drive, spend the morning volunteering at our warehouse, or even read them the classic tale of Stone Soup – there are many age-appropriate ways to introduce children of all ages to the concept of kōkua. 

Resolution: I will volunteer at a Northern Illinois Food Bank opportunity this year that my whole family can attend!

2. Share Social Media Posts

A big part of our mission involves keeping our community up-to-date on things like food distributions, volunteer opportunities and emergency preparedness. Tag, like, share, follow – just one click or tap can go a long way in helping our neighbors thrive. #ActionMattersMost #NeighborsEmpowered

Resolution: I will follow Northern Illinois Food Bank and share content to show what I stand for!

3. Join the Mission to Help Our Neighbors Thrive

For many of our donors, recurring gifts are a practical and convenient way to give back. These gifts allow us to focus our resources more on programs and less on raising necessary funds. Just $1 can help provide $8 worth of groceries.

Resolution: I will make my donation a recurring one to Help Our Neighbors Thrive.

Neighbor Victoria’s Story

Victoria, a former teacher, and her husband, an electrician, relocated to Illinois with their three young children, ages five, seven and nine. After a client failed to pay her husband for a significant $17,000 project, Victoria and her family found themselves searching for answers.

“I would personally like to thank you [donors and the Northern Illinois Food Bank]. It actually brings tears to my eyes because our family was really struggling. What you’re doing here has not only sustained us food-wise, but it’s also given me hope as someone who didn’t used to be in a position of need. And now I am.”

Victoria is thrilled with the quality and variety of food she found at the Glen Ellyn Pantry, one of the 900 food pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs in our network.

“Last week, there were avocados. There are tomatoes. This week, there’s cantaloupe. I’m just thanking God that there are these expensive organic fruits and vegetables available to us at our time of need.”

Victoria even found ingredients for a special Valentine’s dinner:
“And then I saw that the food pantry had given us all these lovely pork chops with pesto butter.”

As new folks to Illinois, making friends and connecting to people are important to Victoria and her family.

“There are a lot of very gracious folks at this particular pantry. One of the ladies is a realtor and she and I always have excellent conversations. The folks [who] are in charge are just really lovely. And that just really blessed me.”

With three kids in school, Victoria appreciates the school lunch program but finds the summer times more difficult: “The kids in the summer don’t get free lunches at school, so…it’s even harder to make ends meet in the summer.”

Before receiving help from the food pantry, Victoria noted that “we had almost nothing in the refrigerator, and I just didn’t want my kids to experience that. It was tough. And now that we come here, we have enough on a regular basis.”

The food pantry allows Victoria to save money and work toward a new career in nursing after many years of teaching. “I’m a licensed teacher. I’ve worked with kids for about 19 years. I’m pursuing, through the community college, a second career in nursing.” The money Victoria saves by visiting the food pantry she can use to go back to school and pay for other family expenses.

Rising costs have made pursuing career goals more difficult, “The cost of living here going up has really made it challenging to buy food. This [food pantry] really makes it possible for us to pay rent.”

“My husband works full time, and I’ll be going back into the workforce.” But for now, the food pantry helps Victoria and her family make ends meet: “Your generosity is helping people that really are hardworking.”

Janet’s Volunteer Story

When Janet Deisenroth describes her volunteer schedule, she starts with the qualifier “when it’s not golf season.”

That’s because Janet, a 63-year-old retired data analyst, is an avid golfer, and that’s a daytime sport. Her other favorite sport to play, ice hockey, doesn’t interfere with her volunteer schedule as much because her league games are in the evenings. “And I run a women’s league how-to-play hockey group on Sundays,” she adds.

That’s why Janet needs to qualify her schedule. So, in warm months, she “only” volunteers a couple days a week.

In the colder months, you can find Janet on some Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays volunteering in our North Suburban Center in Lake County. Or you might see her at Mobile Markets at College of Lake County, Fox Lake and Waukegan’s Cristo Rey. Sometimes she even helps at special events.

“I like to keep busy, and I think it’s a good cause,” she explains.

Janet’s favorite volunteer job is on Wednesdays as site lead at two distributions for our online food pantry, My Pantry Express. That’s where she gets to interact directly with neighbors, “especially the regulars,” she says. “You kind of get to know them. I enjoy talking to them. You see all that stuff you’re doing when you’re working the warehouse. You see the result and how grateful they are.”

It was a My Pantry Express distribution that created one of her most memorable neighbor interactions.  It was about eight months after the hard shutdown of the pandemic in late 2020.

“One day a lady came up. She had become a regular. She said, ‘I’m so sad today.’” Janet asked why she was sad. “‘I got a job so I don’t need to visit you anymore,’ she answered.”

The woman was so excited for her new job and so thankful for all the help she had received. “It really made you feel like standing out in the cold or the heat [at food distributions] was really, really worth it. People are so appreciative, it makes you want to come back next week.”

Did that neighbor stop coming? “I told her that it was OK to keep coming as she got back on her feet. Pay a few bills. You might need some new clothes for this job. Let us help you.”

And that neighbor took the advice, returning to pick up food for a few weeks.

Janet has been a regular volunteer for about six years. Before that she had taken part in corporate volunteer groups about twice a year, and always enjoyed the experience.

After her retirement, when she found herself alone on Saturdays because her husband still worked those days, she recalled that corporate volunteer experience. “It was winter. We retired in January. What else could I pick up?” she wondered. “I remembered that it’s always fun working at the Food Bank.”

Her first volunteer shift after retiring? “I went alone,” she says. “I just went that first time. I walked in not sure what to expect.” And everyone made her feel right at home.

When her oldest grandchild turned 8, Janet starting turning some of that volunteer time into family time, when she would bring him to participate in some volunteer shifts in the warehouse on Saturdays. That was three years ago and now he’s 11.

“Volunteering is something he and I have in common,” Janet says. “I think it’s important they understand that not everyone is as lucky as they are.”

His visits were paused during the pandemic because it would have been difficult for him to social distance – he loves interacting with all the other volunteers, especially some of the regulars whom he’s gotten to know. But their schedule is back to normal now.

Some of the volunteer jobs are not as much fun for him, Janet admits. Recently they processed a batch of onions, discarding any bad ones and bagging the others to give out through food pantries and distributions. “He said, ‘It was really terrible, but I’ll still come back.’ ” Another grandson tells Janet that he can’t wait for his turn to volunteer, when he turns eight. He’s five now. She says maybe, someday, all five of her grandchildren will be able to volunteer with her. “They are all looking forward to it.”

Cliff’s Neighbor Staff Story

When Cliff Gillette started volunteering with us 14 years ago, he never thought it would shape so much of his retirement, let alone become a family affair.

Now, the 77-year-old widower works full-time as a lead “SNAP-per” for the Food Bank, helping neighbors across Northern Illinois navigate their way out of food insecurity by connecting them with food pantries and aid agencies, and guiding them through the application process for state benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP.

Cliff likes to draw on a movie analogy to explain his job. “Do you remember the scene in Forrest Gump when he is sitting on a park bench with a box of chocolates?” Cliff stresses that his movie analogy is not meant to be trivial. Each experience with each neighbor is so drastically different, he says, and everyone needs support in different ways. “Every call I get is the box of chocolates sitting in front of me. And I never know what I’ll get.”

Cliff works remotely and divides his time between his home in Rockford and his daughter’s home in Ohio. All he needs to do his job is his computer and a secure internet connection – along with patience and a strong sense of empathy.

Cliff confesses that earlier in life when he worked as a retail manager, he thought that all a person needed to support themselves and their family was a job. Then he started volunteering at our center in Rockford and his view completely changed.

“The Food Bank was one of my really first volunteer [experiences] I’d ever done in my life,” Cliff says. “When I started working with the Food Bank the intensity was so impressive.”

Cliff took a part-time position with our newly formed SNAP team then, and said that interacting with neighbors who needed help really changed his perspective as he learned all the different reasons someone might need food assistance.

He remembers meeting a senior couple who had worked all their lives. They both received Social Security, but found themselves having to stretch their budget as they tried to decide between paying for medicine or food. “There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people out there in these situations,” Cliff says.

He took several years off from working with the Food Bank, returning to full-time employment, then officially retiring, which is when his wife fell ill, ultimately passing a year later.

He describes her illness and his following grief as “adjusting to his wife’s journey,” adding, “I took several years to do that before I came back to the Food Bank.”

And here is where Cliff’s story takes a twist.

Cliff had introduced his son, Chris (who had a background in restaurants) to food banking all those years ago in Rockford. But while Cliff took time off in his retirement, Chris worked at a food bank in South Carolina. But life works in mysterious ways and both Gillettes found themselves starting work here at Northern Illinois Food Bank in 2019. Chris now directs the operations team at our West Suburban Center in Geneva.

“Like me, he got infected,” Cliff jokes, admitting that there probably aren’t many father-son duos working in food banking.

Cliff’s life experience and dedication have made him known within the Food Bank as someone who goes beyond the call to ensure our neighbors know about the services we provide. 

He will work with them through the SNAP application process. The online application is 17 pages, Cliff says, and can be complicated, needing follow-up information. “We’re here for you at the beginning. And we are here for you on the other side,” he says, then adds with emphasis, “We don’t make the decisions.”

“Even when we can’t help them get SNAP benefits because of income guidelines, we can find other ways to help them,” he says. “We still do agency outreach and we connect with agencies a lot.” Those agencies include food pantries, soup kitchens, senior and child services, and more.

His advice to anyone who needs assistance, but isn’t sure they qualify for SNAP: “Call us. We will figure something out to help. Just call us.”

Neighbor Story: Markius

Twenty-five-year-old Markius works at a music store while trying to make it as a musician. He and his brother live together while renovating a home for their mother.

After graduating from college in 2020, Markius lost his job and had to move back into the house he’s now fixing. As Markius described, 2020 “put everything on a sort of standstill, but that standstill didn’t mean I didn’t pay bills. That standstill meant I just don’t progress this year.”

If Markius didn’t have the help from the food bank, he would not be able to follow his dreams as a musician.

“Well, if the food bank wasn’t here, I definitely wouldn’t be a musician. My life would be a nonstop, like a nine-to-nine factory job.”

By getting help, Markius can pay for gas, taxes, and other living expenses. “There are a lot of people like me that have loads and loads of potential, loads and loads of creativity and drive, that are being held back by a situation. Thank you for giving me the options and freedom to actually progress in life.”

Markius added that without the food pantry, “I wouldn’t have the option or the time to better myself.”

Of course, rising costs have made life harder. “It’s not a choice whether or not you want to eat. So, it was surprising to me that so many people just spend all their money on food.”

For some folks, the stigma of going to a food bank prevents them from getting help. Markius explained that he didn’t grow up with that idea. He grew up in a very poor area where he saw neighbors helping each other out to get food. At church or at school, people often worked together to solve food challenges. For Markius, getting help with food expenses enables him to invest in his life, to have options and the freedom to progress in life. That’s an empowered neighbor.

5 Food Waste Tips for the Holidays

Food waste during the holidays can be a big problem. Luckily, there’s plenty we can do to reduce food waste at home.

Between holiday parties, family obligations and the pressure of finding that perfect gift — this time of year can certainly go by in a flash. Amid the bustle of the holiday season, planning a family gathering can already be hard enough. The last thing we need to worry about is all the holiday leftovers. But, unfortunately, food waste this time of year can be a big problem.

Luckily, there’s plenty we can do to reduce food waste at home — especially during the holidays. Here are five tips that may help you focus even more on caring and celebration this season, and could even reduce the strain on our personal budgets and the environment.

  • Rethink your shopping list. If you’re not hosting guests this year, buy what you need to feed your family and match their tastes. For example, if they cannot stand cranberry sauce — skip it. They like ice cream more than pumpkin pie? Swap it out. Your holiday dinner will still be perfect without those “traditional” foods. And you can avoid overbuying and overspending by shopping for what you’ll want to eat.

  • Take ‘um home. Provide or ask guests to bring reusable containers to pack up leftovers. Instead of loading them up with a little bit of everything, ask them what they enjoyed eating and let them pick. That way, you can avoid those leftovers reaching someone else’s rubbish.

  • Compost. You can compost many ingredients of your holiday meal. Fruits, vegetables, eggshells and coffee grounds make great compost. You can compost safely at home in your backyard or in an indoor compost bin.

Holiday Meal Boxes

The Holiday Season is right around the corner and this year Northern Illinois Food Bank plans to distribute 60,000 Holiday Meal boxes to neighbors to ensure they are able to thrive and celebrate this year. 


We began packing boxes the last week of September and will continue through the first week of December. Each box weighs 11.5 pounds and includes: 7 cocoa packets, bag of rice, cranberry sauce, brownie mix, turkey gravy, diced pears, stuffing mix, bag of pinto beans, 2 cans of whole kernel corn, and 2 cans of green beans. A turkey or ham and a bag of potatoes will be included with the box.

There are a few opportunities to help with our Holiday Meal Box Program. You can make a donation or volunteer at our Geneva location to help pack boxes for our neighbors.