Neighbor Cliff, The Spirit of the Community

We met with Clifford at the Salvation Army food pantry in Kankakee, Illinois, to talk about the challenges his family has faced and the positive role the food and healthy eating services provided by the Northern Illinois Food Bank have played in their life. “With what I make, I could never afford to get the food we need at the grocery stores,” shared Clifford.  

Clifford was sidelined from his career as a plumber in good standing with his local union due to a physical disability incurred on the job. “We had to move cast iron tubs up to the second floor of homes [being renovated],” said Clifford, adding, “After that, my back was shot, and I had to get a three-level fusion.” A spinal fusion is a surgical procedure that links spinal vertebrae to stabilize the back.  

Since his injury and surgery about 20 years ago, Clifford—a married father of three—has relied on disability to support his family. His oldest son is studying to be a doctor, and his two other children are 19 and 16 years old and reside at home.  

While Clifford and his family do supplement the food they receive at food banks with trips to the grocery store, he said if community pantries weren’t available, it would affect us because we depend on all of them to help us out,” adding, “I can’t believe the prices on some food today.”  

Not only does everyone deserve the food they need to thrive, but opportunities to access essential resources should be convenient and welcoming. Clifford reflected on his food bank experiences, “They are good people here. They’re nice and treat you with respect, like a human being instead of somebody needy.”  

Of course, continuing to support food distributions and consistently providing healthy food for our neighbors depends on the community’s generosity of volunteer time and financial support.  

“I’m appreciative of what people donate, and I want to thank everyone who donates to this cause because it not only helps me and my family, but it helps so many others,” said Clifford, who often thinks about those who have even greater struggles. “There are people who are homeless and who need more support, even more than me. If I see that, I’d rather have them have it, and I’ll go without a little bit.”  

That spirit of community to care for one another helps create a safety net for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity. 

Senior Neighbor, Carol, Encourages Program Use

We met Carol at a Senior Mobile in Rockford, IL. Carol is a resident of Greencastle of Mulford residential community. 

Carol, a resident at Greencastle of Mulford senior living facility, worked for social service organizations and is now retired. In her working life, Carol was committed to social service, which helped many people but didn’t pay a lot, leaving her with fewer savings for retirement.  

Carol appreciates the senior mobile Food Bank because it reaffirms her and her values. “Sometimes programs make you feel like you haven’t made enough money for yourself. This program doesn’t make me feel that way.”  

Carol also appreciates the convenience of the on-site food distribution. “For a while, I had a health issue, which made it very difficult to get to the store. Now I don’t have to leave the building, especially on a day like today when it’s so hot. Or in the winter, when it’s so cold.” 

Mostly, Carol takes food that she can use. If she has extra, she shares it with her daughter who is single and works by commission (so sometimes money is very tight). It makes Carol feel good to help her daughter when she doesn’t have a lot of her own cash to share. 

Carol encourages other residents to use the senior mobile program, “I’ll meet you at the door and then we can go through the mobile Food Bank together.” Carol was happy to see a new neighbor at the food distribution in her building. 

Based on her own work experience, Carol really appreciates the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s work and organization that goes into making the senior mobiles possible. “I understand what goes into getting this all together and I’m quite impressed.” 

Meals on the Move, Summer 2023

It was another fun summer of Meals on the Move, serving more than 5,000 free lunches to kids in Aurora and distributing over 14,300 pounds of produce!

For our sixth year, we tried something a little different. Historically the summer lunch program has served kids one location at a time, often starting at 10am and finishing at 3pm. However, we found that the parks where we served meals outside of traditional lunch times had the lowest attendance. This year, to maximize the best part of the day, we served lunch at four different parks – two locations at a time – between 11am and 1:30pm.

We were happy to return to Phillips Park and McCarty Park, where it’s always fun to see kids playing in the splashpads. We also added two new locations to our route. It had been a few years since there was a stop in the northeast part of the city. Garfield Park is a great location as it’s central to several different neighborhoods, and has a playground, a shelter, and access to parking. 

William V Plum Park is a smaller neighborhood park that we chose because it’s located in a part of the city with a high density of families with children.  Early in the summer, a parent at Plum Park told us that usually the park was pretty empty, but that now her son enjoyed coming to get lunch and see his school friends.  Since we started serving lunches there every weekday, the park became abuzz with local families – sitting at the picnic tables, eating lunches in the shade, kids playing on the playground.  This sense of community within the neighborhood was everything we want Meals on the Move to be!

In addition to serving lunches for kids, it was also our second summer offering Friday Fresh Mart where families can take home fresh produce.  We know that produce can be some of the most expensive items at the grocery store and consequently the first to be left off the shopping list.  Our goal has been to help meet this need and provide a variety of produce for families to take home each week.  We sought to offer common staples, such as onions and potatoes, as well as items families might not have tried before, like spaghetti squash.  Not to mention fun favorites like pineapple and watermelon!

We have learned over the past two summers that Friday Fresh Mart provides a valued resource for families in Aurora. When it’s been too hot or rainy for kids to come eat lunch in the parks, parents still come out to pick up produce to take home. Friday Fresh Mart also provides non-perishable meals for kids to eat over the weekend, allowing us to offer lunch for kids seven days a week.

Overall, it was one of our best summers yet, reaching hundreds of families across the city! Planning for next summer is about to begin, and we’re excited to see what 2024 has in store.

The Difference You Make

A Team Member’s Perspective

450,000 neighbors served monthly – thanks to leaders like Yvette, every experience is extraordinary!

Would you know how to explain the difference between a food bank and a food pantry?

We know this can sound confusing, but it’s really quite easy to explain. Northern Illinois Food Bank supplies groceries to a network of 900 outlets across our 13-county service area, including soup kitchens, after-school programs, Backpack distributions, and more. But the majority of our neighbors access groceries through our network of about 400 agencies and food pantries. We recently spoke with one of our team members, Yvette Sellers, who shared her insight.

“Northern Illinois Food Bank is a lot like an actual bank,” she says. “Except instead of money, we obtain, process, and distribute the food that our network of food pantries provides for the neighbors who use their services.” Yvette continues, “Most food pantries serve their immediate neighborhoods. They are right in their own community, meeting the needs of their neighbors. The Food Bank helps keep the shelves stocked in those food pantries so no one has to go hungry.” We asked Yvette to tell us more about her work as our Agency Relations Area Leader for our Northwest counties. “I like to be able to help my community, and my community is not just where I live. It’s all five counties that I serve within my region.”

What does a typical workday look like for her?

Yvette laughs, “No two days are the same. I might be at a Mobile Market in the morning, and then doing administrative work in the afternoon, or visiting a partner agency. “It’s really inspiring and exciting to see the work they’re doing, and the enthusiasm of the agencies and the pantry directors and their volunteers. They are constantly innovating and sharing with other agencies about what they’re doing in their communities – ideas ranging from food safety to distribution schedules that work best for those we’re serving.” We asked Yvette if there was anything she’d like to say to our donors and volunteers. “It’s two simple words: Thank you! We see the difference you make every day for children, families, seniors and other neighbors, and we’re very grateful to you!”

Rx Mobile Market—Saving Lives

“You are saving our lives by providing healthy food.”

Sirenio picks up healthy food at the
Rx Mobile Market in Waukegan, a
partnership with Erie Family Health.

Sirenio’s life changed when he received his diagnosis. Chances are you know and love someone whose life has also been altered by diabetes. It’s a disease that affects every part of a patient’s life and without management, can be fatal. But there’s hope for patients in Northern Illinois, thanks to innovative partnerships and generous donors.

The risk of diabetes among those who are food insecure is about two times higher than those who are not food insecure. Feeding America estimates that 33% of the households it serves include someone diagnosed with diabetes. Building a healthy eating pattern is critical to maintain good health, wellbeing, and to prevent, delay, or manage diabetes.

Northern Illinois Food Bank has developed partnerships with area healthcare providers. One of the innovative programs to come out of these partnerships is the Rx Mobile Market program—a way for those who suffer from diabetes and other diet-related illnesses to obtain free, health-smart food like lean meat and fresh produce. Patients are referred to this program by their healthcare provider. It’s a reliable resource for neighbors like Sirenio, who is 51 and disabled due to complications from diabetes. “Due to my health, I cannot work, and healthy food is expensive. Before, I used to eat whatever I could get, and it made my health issues worse.”

Now, a healthier diet is Sirenio’s prescription for regaining his independence. It’s taken time and effort, but his health is getting better. Since improving his diet through the Rx Mobile Market program, Sirenio has seen real benefits. His eyesight has improved, the circulation problem that plagued his feet has lessened, and he’s happier.

Sirenio is grateful for the access to healthy food. “It helps me and a lot of people who don’t have the means to get food.” Speaking for others who face health and hunger challenges in our community, he says, “You are saving our lives by providing healthy food.”

Ellen’s Story

Overcoming Food Insecurity with the Help of a Food Bank

“I was a single mom. I was working full-time but still not making enough. It was either food or bills.”

Ellen Croce is a volunteer and former client of the HCS Pantry in Hinsdale, Illinois. Her story is one of resilience and hope in the face of food insecurity. When Ellen first started using the food pantry, she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She had two young daughters, one of whom had a heart transplant at the age of two. Despite working full-time, Ellen found it difficult to provide enough food for her family.

Ellen’s situation is not uncommon. Many families in the United States struggle with food insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. In fact, the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which partners with HCS Pantry, estimates that over 800,000 people in its service area face food insecurity.

Finding Community at the Pantry

Ellen’s experience with the food pantry was life-changing. Despite feeling humiliated and depressed at first, she found that the staff and volunteers treated her with respect and kindness. “They treat you like you’re human,” Ellen says. “They treat you like, ‘Thank you so much for coming in today.’ That is a huge thing for somebody’s confidence for raising children. For me to know that I could take care of my children, and there are people that are not judging you. That’s huge.”

Neighbor, Volunteer, and Partner

Ellen’s experience with the food bank not only gave her the confidence to provide for her family but also inspired her to give back to her community. As she explains, “As well as being helped, I needed to help.” Ellen became a volunteer at the HCS Pantry and helped open a new food pantry in Willowbrook. She credits the food bank with giving her the self-confidence to move forward and help others. “Donors and volunteers are so much more important than they think they are,” she says. “Please keep doing it. Please share it with your family and your friends. Invite them to come and help. Invite them to be a part of being this place that helps our neighbors.”

Neighbors. Empowered.

Ellen’s story is a testament to the power of food banks and the importance of supporting them. Donors and volunteers play a crucial role in providing food and resources to families like Ellen’s. As Ellen says, “Donors and volunteers are so much more important than they think they are. They are amazing people who give their time, their money sometimes, the food. Please keep doing it. Please share it with your family and your friends. Invite them to come and help. Invite them to be a part of being this place that helps our neighbors.”

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, let’s remember the impact that food banks can have on people’s lives. Let’s continue to support and volunteer at our local food banks and work towards a future where no one has to go hungry.

Volunteer if you can. And keep on donating. It means the world to people.

Healthy Foods – And A Taste of Home

What are you hungry for? Rice cakes and seaweed? Masala marinade? In our diverse communities, our neighbors derive nourishment and cultural connections from a wide variety of foods. Which means, at Northern Illinois Food Bank, we need to make sure the shelves are stocked with foods that are culturally appropriate for all of the neighbors we serve.

So, we do polling. We rely on research and census data. And we invest in communication, education and outreach—encouraging our food pantries to learn more about the cultures they are serving, the holidays they are celebrating, and the foods people are asking for.

Thank goodness for our wonderful partners! One food donor is now helping keep us stocked with rice cakes, seaweed, and fish sauce. Another is supplying chili pods, tofu, and masa flour. And a local produce vendor is supplying delicacies like mangoes, jalapenos, and Mexican squash. Local farmers are even stepping up and growing some amazing new crops!

We don’t all eat the same foods. But we all share a commitment to feeding our neighbors and ending hunger in our communities. The more we stock the shelves with healthy, appropriate, and culturally affirming foods, the more we help make sure no one goes hungry. Thanks for all you do to support our work!

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.”

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.