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. 

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.

Tim’s Volunteering Story

The first time Tim Z. volunteered, he didn’t think he would like it. His daughter needed volunteer service hours for her high school, so they decided to try the Food Bank’s South Suburban Center in Joliet.

“This wasn’t where I wanted to be. It’s actually kind of funny because I was just like, `Oh, I got to go there and volunteer.’ But I fell in love here. I fell in love with all the volunteers that were coming and helping other people out.”

It’s been over three years and Tim, who is 51, is now a volunteer supervisor in the South Suburban Center.

“The amount of volunteers that come through this building – we’ve grown into a family. That’s what it’s turned out to be here,” he says.

He and his daughter have worked just about every job there is in the Food Bank’s distribution center, from relabeling cans of vegetables to packaging cereal. And he has learned a lot about food banking, food pantries and the people they serve, who come for a wide variety of reasons.

When he walked in the door for that first volunteer shift, “I really didn’t know too much about food pantries. I mean, I thought it was pretty much just the homeless on the street,” Tim says.

We caught up with Tim in late February when he was supervising My Pantry Express, the Food Bank’s online food pantry, which offers evening pickup hours directly for neighbors out of our South Suburban Center.

“I interact with everyone that comes through here and it’s as if they’re my own brother or sister,” he says.

He tells the story of meeting a mother and daughter one night the previous winter, which was during the height of the pandemic. They were in the drive-up food pickup line in an old truck that was on the verge of quitting. “I kept on telling her, ‘Keep the foot on the gas because that vehicle cannot die.’ And it died out front and it was cold,” he says. “And I told my sis, ‘Come on in here, sit down. I will get somebody. I’ll get your truck running again.’ And I pulled my vehicle over to jump her vehicle. And she just was sitting in here and you could see that she was cold.”

A year later, she is still a regular at My Pantry Express. “Like I said, she’s like a sister to me and she’s always laughing, smiling. Her daughter’s always laughing,” he says. “Her smile on her face just lightens us. So, she’s come a long ways and I mean, she touched my heart.”

Tim had been out of town for a few weeks working his regular job as a construction foreman. This neighbor and many others noticed his absence, and cared.

“I’ve gone through a lot on a personal side this past year with my own family. And she was asking, even when I wasn’t here, ‘How’s Tim doing? How’s Tim doing?’ Asking all the volunteers and that. So, I mean, a lot of them are asking how I’m doing.”

He circles back to the idea of laughter and smiling. It’s important to him, as it’s a way to offer hope and recognition.

“All of us back there are always smiling,” he says. “If you’re not making them smile, they’re going to feel afraid to come back. So, we’re trying to encourage them to come back every week. I remind them, ‘Put your order in when you go home tonight.’”

Tim’s smile and dedication has earned him recognition as one of our outstanding volunteers.

“They all call me El Presidento,” he says, a name that comes from the early days of setting up My Pantry Express in Joliet, when his leadership and organizational skills were put to good use.

“I don’t ask for anything back. I joke about the paycheck,” he says, “because it’s something funny and that, but even if I did get a paycheck, I’d be donating it right now. I mean, because I’m not here for no money. I’m not here for no recognition and no employee of the year. In my eyes, employee of the year is everyone that comes in here to volunteer.”

He also donates hand-made bag toss (aka cornhole) game sets to the volunteer program in Joliet. “I do it on the side,” he says. “I make them for other people and that, but it’s something to give back to the ones who volunteer for us. As a thank you for coming out.”

“The volunteers here are like a family,” he says. “We come here so we’re all together to serve.”

And that service – whether that be a donation of time, food or money – is important. “You’re making a big difference by your donation,” he says. “It is hitting every person that’s in need. And in my eyes, everybody at one time in their life will need assistance. Everybody will.”

$1 = $8 of Groceries

For every $1 donated, Northern Illinois Food Bank provides $8 worth of groceries. Every donation makes a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.

Northern Illinois Food Bank is grateful for the generosity of our donors and is committed to being a good steward of your support. Thanks to your food bank money donations, 97 percent of our resources go towards programs to ensure our neighbors have the food they need to thrive. Northern Illinois Food Bank has maintained a strong rating from Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of charities, since 2001. Learn more about how to donate money to the food bank & how you can help here.

Serving Hope Monthly Giving Club

Please consider becoming a member of our monthly giving club, Serving Hope.  Knowing we can count on your gifts allows the food bank to plan ahead ensuring our neighbors can depend on us whenever they need food.

5 Great Alternatives to Canned Food Drives

Since Northern Illinois Food Bank purchases groceries wholesale, monetary contributions help to make sure our neighbors thrive. Making a cash donation, volunteering your time, involving your company or employer in matching giftsraising awareness on social media, and hosting fundraisers are incredible ways to fight hunger.

Canned Food Drives Are Less Efficient Than Alternatives

Canned food drives require the Food Bank to expend more resources. Frequently, donated cans are too old for consumption, grabbed unknowingly from household shelves and given after their expiration dates. Volunteers must sift through cans to expel old food and keep recipients safe. Even if new cans are donated, it takes hours for volunteers to sort and organize food. Additionally, cans are difficult to store and transport. Collecting and moving boxes of donated food requires time and money. Balanced, nutritious meals are especially important for food-insecure families.

Donating Time or Money to the Food Bank Makes a Huge Impact

Northern Illinois Food Bank is highly efficient thanks to the generosity of our community. Donating time through volunteer work, and donating funds, are both critical to our success helping our neighbors thrive.

Donating Funds to Northern Illinois Food Bank

Monetary donations allow the Food Bank to pay for the logistics of the operation, including refrigeration, trucking and so on. In some cases, it also allows the Food Bank to purchase healthy groceries for those in need, which is generally less than 5% of the Food Bank inventory since so much food is donated by farmers, growers, wholesalers and distributors. Approximately 96% of Food Bank revenue goes directly to programs that help support our food-insecure children, adults and senior neighbors.

Your employer may also be able to help fight hunger. Thousands of companies maintain Matching Gift programs that double or even triple employee donations. Ask your employer if they match charitable contributions to maximize the impact of your donation!

Sponsoring Food Bank events and engaging in Cause Marketing campaigns are also great ways for companies to raise money to alleviate hunger. 

Depending on the campaign or event, the Food Bank can sometimes support company recognition through logos and links in our newsletters and social media posts. Companies can also build camaraderie and make a difference by organizing a volunteer event together at one of our locations, which is a great teambuilding activity. Learn more on our volunteer pages.

Donating Time to the Food Bank

Last year volunteers donated 130,000 hours of their time to help distribute 78 million meals to families, seniors, and kids facing hunger in our community. Both individual and group opportunities are available. Much of the Food Bank’s product is distributed through a network of 900 partner agencies.

Fundraisers and Social Media Posts Increase Donations and Spread Awareness of Hunger

Social media mentions help increase traffic to our accounts. Posting about hunger insecurity helps bring attention to the need. By promoting Northern Illinois Food Bank events and volunteer opportunities, you can expand our reach and involve more community members in our mission. On birthdays or holidays, consider directing followers to check out our website and offer small donations. For every $1 donated, Northern Illinois Food Bank is able to provide $8 worth of groceries. By drawing social media attention to the Food Bank, you also remind food-insecure neighbors that there are resources to help. 

Fundraising, whether virtual or in-person, also provides amazing support to the Food Bank. Turn anything you’re passionate about into an event that fights hunger, whether a walk-a-thon, brunch, roast, gaming contest, DJ livestream or special occasion. Incorporate your talents, pastimes and interests to make a difference by selling hand-made crafts or baked goods. Your efforts have a huge impact to help neighbors thrive.

Whether planning events, connecting a company, volunteering time, donating money or involving friends, family and followers, your hard work and kindness helps Northern Illinois Food Bank and neighbors.