“Are those grapes?” An older woman asked excitedly, as tears welled up in her eyes. “I haven’t had grapes in so long,” she said, as she placed a grape in her mouth and closed her eyes to savor the taste.
This day was a special one indeed—it was the Food Bank’s first Senior Grocery Market food distribution at the Northwest Center in Rockford. It was the first time the Food Bank had ever distributed food directly from the warehouse to hungry neighbors. Over the course of the two-hour distribution, 81 people went home with approximately 30 pounds of various fresh produce and dry goods.
A year later, these distributions, which are held on the first and third Thursdays of the month, have proved to be wildly successful and now serve an average of 250 neighbors and distribute nearly 9,000 pounds of food directly to seniors in need.
Inspired by the Food Bank’s Build Healthy Communities strategic priority, the Senior Market was created with the goal of better serving one of the most high-need populations in the highest-need region of the Food Bank’s service area: seniors in Winnebago County. What’s more, the program goes beyond providing healthy food to support seniors’ overall health, by also addressing other factors that affect a person’s ability to provide for themselves and their families—like employment, healthcare and housing—by providing educational presentations from a variety of community partners.
“We’ve always known there’s a connection between food insecurity and maintenance of health,” says Sharon McNeil, Manager of Healthy Community Programs at the Food Bank. “So we’re trying to become part of their safety net umbrella by either being that connection point, or linking them with other resources that address these other underlying social issues.”
To date, local community organizations such as Oak Street Health, Rockford Fire Department, Rockford Supportive Living, Winnebago County Health Department, Extra Help Agency, Northern Illinois University, University of Illinois Extension, and Food Bank staff have all provided informational sessions about everything from fire safety, to taxes, to Medicaid and insurance, to cooking demos featuring the healthy foods they take home from the Market.
When asked what has made the Senior Market Program so successful, McNeil says, “How we treat [our neighbors] is part of the reason they come back—we empower them as humans and invest in their well-being,” she says. “They become part of our Food Bank family.”
At first glance, Ralph and Linda (ages 74 and 69, respectively) appear to be exact opposites. He is tall and quick to deliver a joke, while she is shorter and more serious. But beyond appearances, this husband-and-wife pair is united in their love for their family – and their gratitude for how Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Senior Grocery Market is making a difference in their lives.
After first hearing about the Senior Grocery Market through word-of-mouth, Ralph and Linda started coming to Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Rockford branch in September 2017 to take part in the bi-monthly distributions. Longtime residents of Rockford, they live just a few minutes away with Linda’s grown children (a son and daughter, ages 45 and 43) and sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Maggie.
Ralph, whose background is in theatre and publicity, shares that he first came to the city with NBC as a film and art director, and had an extensive career as a communications professional.
“I worked for almost every major industry in Rockford, and here I am at a food bank,” he says. “What in the dickens?!”
Although the idea of needing help in order to put food on the table has been an adjustment, both Ralph and Linda are extremely thankful for the assistance they have found at the Food Bank’s Senior Grocery Market, and are impressed by the efficiency of the program.
“I’m amazed at how well this whole operation goes!” Ralph says, gesturing to the volunteers and clients surrounding them in the warehouse. “I feel comfortable here. Not threatened. Not intimidated, and not embarrassed.”
They are also glad to see such a broad selection of foods available to choose from. “I like the variety,” Linda says. “The meat, that’s a biggie – especially beef. I use all of it—I cook from scratch.”
When asked how the food they take home helps with their budget and current resources, the reply is immediate. “We eat!” Ralph quips lightheartedly with a roguish grin and a wink. When Linda swats at his arm, he continues more seriously, “It’s a blessing.”
Linda explains that although they receive SNAP benefits each month, the total amount was significantly reduced just recently, thus coming to the Senior Grocery Market allows them to get nutritious groceries without putting an added burden on their already strapped budget.
As they near the end of the line, Linda adds a head of lettuce to the basket of the shopping cart. Ralph surveys the contents of the cart with a smile. “It’s hard being on the downward slope,” he says. “I’m not used to that. [So] it’s extremely helpful.”