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Illinois food banks swamped by people in need

CHAMPAIGN -- One Illinois economic sector reports record-breaking business this year, but it's not good news.

The state's system of food banks – which supply more than 2,000 food pantries across Illinois – has seen its clientele grow steadily with the recession, and August was the busiest month on record.

"Every month, we continue to see record-breaking numbers, not just here in Chicago but across the state," said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and president of Feeding Illinois, the state association of food banks.

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana is no exception.

Demand is up 30 percent, with an average of 43,500 people a month using the food pantries in its 14-county network compared with 33,700 a month last year, said Cheryl Middaugh, director of marketing.

Meanwhile, donations have dropped, she said.

First-time clients, in particular, are on the rise – those who have recently lost jobs, had their hours cut back or whose wages "aren't keeping pace with the expenses in their lives," Maehr said.

Just ask Shelly Walters, who visited the Vineyard Food Pantry in Urbana for the first time Wednesday morning. She lost her job after three years when her company relocated, and making ends meet has been a challenge.

"I'm very thankful they have this," Walters said, as volunteers helped her unload bags of produce, meat, cheese, bread, canned goods and cleaning products. "Thank God I have an interview later today."

Hunger used to be considered a problem of the homeless, but hunger in America today is a problem for working families, too, said Maehr, a native of Urbana.

"It is not uncommon for us to see somebody coming to the food pantry for the very first time, and both adults in the household have jobs," Maehr said.

Homer Green of Champaign works two jobs to support his family of seven, plus his mother and sister. He visited the Vineyard Food Pantry with his mother and son, Samuel, 4.

"This supplements the cost and helps us get through the week," Green said. Without it, "we'd scrape by. The economy is kind of tough."

Volunteers say traffic at the weekly food pantry, which attracted 83 people Wednesday, has risen steadily in recent months.

The crowd averages 70 to 75, and usually tops 100 at least once a month, said Director Paula Barickman. Two or three years ago, "50 was a busy day," she said.

"The thing we hear people complain about more than anything else is being laid off," said volunteer Stan Clapp, a retired minister and building contractor. "Until I started working here, I didn't have any idea how many people are hurting."

Data released this week by Census Bureau shows 20.2 percent of Champaign County residents live in poverty – one out of five, or about 35,000 people.

That's up from 16.1 percent in 2000, said Amy Terpstra of the Social IMPACT Research Center, a program of the Heartland Alliance in Chicago.

The statewide figure was 12.2 percent, up from 10.7 percent in 2000, she said.

Those figures don't assess the full impact of the recession, as unemployment has steadily risen in 2009, she added.

They also don't count those living in near-poverty – earning more than the federal poverty level but not enough to get by, she said.

In Champaign County 15.4 percent of the population earns between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level, she said, or up to $44,000 for a family of three.

Terpstra's organization calculated a "self-sufficiency standard," looking at "real costs" to determine how much families need to afford child care, health care and other necessities.

In Champaign County, a one-parent family with a preschooler and a school-age child needs more than $43,000 a year, compared with the federal poverty standard of about $18,000, she said.

"Poverty has been deepening. Even folks well into the middle class have lost jobs or income. They might not be officially poor, but what they're experiencing is something quite similar to poverty," she said.

Green was happy to share his story to encourage others to reach out for help and "let people know they should have no shame. They have to do whatever it takes to help their family, help the community. Work hard every day, that's our foundation."

"You have to draw on the community, and draw on the Lord," he said. "God provides for us. He can provide for everyone."

By Julie Wurth

Donations:

Eastern Illinois Foodbank, Attention: Food for Families, 2405 N. Shore Drive, Urbana, 61802, or www.eifoodbank.org

 

More information: www.eifoodbank.org or call 328-3663.

 

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