An industry ad campaign many years ago touted the virtues of orange juice, declaring that a day without it was like a day lacking sunshine. Local advocates for hunger relief are putting a new twist on orange, aiming to use the color to work toward a time when every day is a day without hunger.
As families continue to struggle through the national economy’s slow comeback, new partnerships and players are part of the scenario for the local observance of National Hunger Action Month. The awareness-raising campaign officially kicked off Thursday, when the public was encouraged to wear orange to call attention to the effort.
The initiative began quite early in downtown Naperville, when about 25 orange-attired people turned out just after dawn to form a flash mob at Water and Main streets.
“I’ve never been part of a flash mob before,” said Gordon Hahn of Aurora, vice president of operations for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which pulled together the gathering along with Naperville’s Loaves & Fishes Community Services earlier this week. “I guess I can cross it off my bucket list.”
The two local nonprofits are among many hunger relief agencies that have seen their client populations swell in the years since the most recent recession took hold and unemployment rates began to rise. The 2014 study of hunger recently released by Feeding America reported that the number of suburban Chicago households living at or below the poverty level has increased 95 percent since 1990.
Hahn said some of the greatest need for assistance seen by the food bank is now among youth, young adults and seniors — many of whose retirement savings shrank drastically in the prolonged economic downturn.
Loaves & Fishes distributed nearly 3.3 million pounds of fresh food and groceries during 2013. Volunteer team leader Rick Wagner said the agency is keeping up, but he’s nonetheless troubled that so many kids are still in need.
“Too many children go to bed hungry every night still, so that’s why I’m here,” said Wagner, sporting an orange University of Illinois T-shirt.
Some degree of heightened awareness is needed, advocates for low-income families say. Food insecurity — the term applied to households that struggle financially to provide sufficient food for all their members at some time during the year — declined slightly between 2011 and 2013, from 14.9 percent of American households to 14.3 percent. According to Alisha Coleman-Jensen, however, the figures don’t tell a complete story.
“We found that while unemployment declined in 2012 and 2013, inflation and the price of food relative to other goods and services continued to increase,” wrote Coleman-Jensen, a researcher with the food assistance branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a blog entry on Wednesday. “These increases offset improvements in food security that might have resulted from the decline in unemployment.”
In DuPage County, the food-insecure population represents 9.1 percent of all residents, nearly 100,000 people, and 16.4 percent of that group is children. Loaves & Fishes provided food assistance to 19,552 people through its pantry operation during fiscal 2014, which ended June 30. The NIFB estimates that 425,000 residents in its 13-county service area continue to face hunger.
“It just really shows that even though the economy is improving, a lot of people are still unemployed or underemployed,” said Brandon Pettigrew, communication specialist for the food bank.
The Geneva hunger relief agency, which feeds some 71,000 people every week, is teaming up with Loaves & Fishes during Hunger Action Month to spread the word about the problem.
Jody Bender, Loaves & Fishes’ director of community engagement, said it’s a positive development that many people have begun bringing home a paycheck again. For many families, however, it’s much smaller than it used to be and the income doesn’t go far enough.
“They’ve been able to secure jobs, but they’re not earning enough to support their way of life, which is a very basic way of life,” Bender said.
The Feeding America report found that 77 percent of households receiving food assistance in the U.S. have at least one member who has had a job in the previous 12 months.
Others also are working locally to put food on the table for families who need it. Yes We Can!, an undertaking launched a year ago by Naperville young siblings Sasha and Vaughn Lindstrom, collected more than five tons of nonperishables in its first campaign. Comprised of schools, local businesses, Scout troops and other community organizations, the effort this year aims to double that total in donated canned soup, to be presented in mid-October to Loaves & Fishes, Hesed House and DuPage PADS.
The group, which now works with help from an advisory board composed of local business people, will kick off its new season with a recognition ceremony from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 10 at Fair Oaks Ford Lincoln, 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville. Yes We Can! representatives also plan to collect donations outside local grocery stores during the month, scheduling Casey’s Foods from 3 to 7 p.m. Sept. 8 and 20.
The growing kid-founded effort is one way Hunger Action Month is gaining momentum in the community. The partnership between Loaves & Fishes and the NIFB is another. The two organizations have collaborated on projects in the past, but this is their first Hunger Action Month teamwork. Both agencies still frequently encounter residents who are unaware their neighbors are in need.
“The counties where you really wouldn’t think there’s need, there is,” Hahn said.
Bender sees that expectation often as well.
“Sometimes people hear about hunger, and when they hear of it in their community, they’re surprised, they’re shocked, they’re skeptical. But we see it every day,” she said. “You can’t tell if someone’s hungry just by looking at them, so we’re hoping that by doing this, we’re not just raising food and awareness, we’re also raising compassion and empathy.”
For more information, visit loaves-fishes.org or solvehungertoday.org.Tags: community service, food
Below are the drop sites in Naperville for soup donations to be distributed to local social service agencies by Yes We Can! in October.
DuPage Children’s Museum, 301 N. Washington St.
Fair Oaks Ford Lincoln, 1351 E. Ogden Ave. and 2055 W. Ogden Ave.
Naperville Development Partnership, 22 E. Chicago Ave., Suite 205
Naperville Bank & Trust, 555 Fort Hill Drive, 1205 S. Naper Blvd. and 5 S. Washington St.
Aurelio’s Pizza, 1975 Springbrook Square Drive
Advanced Healthcare of Naperville and Naperville Mom’s Network, 1767 W. Ogden Ave., Suite 153
The Dailey Method of Naperville, 200 E. Fifth Ave.
Great Western Flooring Co., 115 E. Ogden Ave., Unit 101
Monarch Landing, 2255 Monarch Drive
It is important, with any donation of nonperishable food, to check expiration dates, as expired items must be discarded.
“We have to throw out thousands and thousands of pounds of food because we can’t use it,” said Rick Wagner, a volunteer team leader at Loaves & Fishes Community Services.
Supporters behind Yes We Can! include the drop site businesses as well as Sun-Times Media West, NCTV-17, the Naperville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chicago Tribune, Girl Scouts (Chicago and northwest Indiana), Boy Scouts (Three Fires Council, Thunderbird and Indian Prairie), Northern Trust - Naperville, Rotary Clubs of Naperville, Realty Executives Premiere, Edward Ambulance Service, Naperville School District 203, Indian Prairie School District 204 and Ss. Peter and Paul School.