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When holiday generosity runs dry, food pantry needs are still great

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When holiday generosity runs dry, food pantry needs are still great

Posted on Thu, Feb 23, 2017

Hunger doesn't stop. If anything, it escalates as winter drags on and donations dwindle.

 chicagotribune.com

When holiday generosity runs dry, food pantry needs are still great

BY Heidi Stevens

We don't do a lot of food drives in February, my family and I.

We're all about the greater good in November and December — collecting winter gear for coat drives, assembling Thanksgiving meals for the homeless, donating toys and food to our favorite charities.

And then we just sort of stop. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Hunger doesn't stop. If anything, it escalates as winter drags on and donations dwindle.

"We always feel this mixture of deep, deep gratitude combined with a little bit of worry during the holidays," Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told me last week.

I toured the organization's Archer Heights distribution center, which provided some 70 million pounds of food last year to more than 800,000 people across Cook County. A network of 700 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and children and older adult programs gets its food from the Food Depository.

It's a humbling facility, buzzing with volunteers and employees working around-the-clock to combat hunger. In one corner of the massive building, I watched budding chefs who are enrolled in Chicago's Community Kitchens, a free, 14-week program that trains unemployed adults for careers in food service. The students I saw were a week away from graduation, which my tour guide assured me is a festive, emotional, many-ballooned affair.

After the tour, I met Maehr and asked her about post-holiday donating.

"There's this window around Thanksgiving, sometimes Christmas, sometimes year-end as you're getting ready to do your tax work, when we see this incredible outpouring of generosity on all fronts," she said. "Children will make us beneficiaries of their classroom projects. Families come out and volunteer. Our food-drive barrels across the city are overflowing."

And then it stops.

And because of the nature of what's being distributed — food, a lot of it fresh — stockpiling for lean months isn't an option.

"Fifteen years ago, when most of what we distributed came in a can or a box, you could stockpile," Maehr said.

But the Food Depository now aims for 35 percent of its distributed food to be fresh produce, and it no longer accepts donations of chips, soda and junk food.

"We've put an emphasis on connecting families and individuals to more fresh food," Maehr said. "A sweet potato or an ear of corn — that has to move quickly."

January and February can be especially cruel months for families on the brink of hunger.

"It's the time of year when expenses catch up with you," Maehr said. "Maybe you used your credit card to purchase presents. Maybe you have higher heating bills. Maybe your kids are sick and you've got additional bills related to medicine. Maybe you had temporary work for the holidays and your hours got cut."

And when the money runs out, the food runs out.

"These are really difficult months for families," Maehr said. "But the awareness just isn't there."

For those of us who can help, I asked Maehr which goes further — donated money or donated food.

Both, she said with a laugh.

"The economics are that I can take your dollar and spread it further," she said. "When we buy food, I'm not going in and buying one can; I'm buying 20 truckloads. So the prices are much better. And there are opportunities for food to be donated to us, but we have to pay transportation costs. So a lot of potatoes might come to us from Idaho or a lot of apples from Washington state, but we have to pay to transport them. We can use our dollars that way, and it's a lot less expensive per apple than if you were to walk into your local grocery store and buy an apple."

But the power of one human giving food to another human can never be replicated, she said.

"There's something about putting a can of food in a food-drive barrel that connects people to the realness of the problem," Maehr said.

And it's real. Forty-two million Americans live in food-insecure households, including 13 million children, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

"It's a travesty because we live in a country that produces more than enough food," Maehr said. "This isn't a supply chain problem. This isn't warfare or drought. This is about access and politics and poverty and our willingness to address them."

It feels intractable, hunger that deep and widespread. But it's easy enough to chip away at it. The Greater Chicago Food Depository web site (www.chicagosfoodbank.org) has a page of suggestions if you're looking for ways to help.

"This isn't about us and them," Maehr said. "Hunger is in every neighborhood, in every city, in every state. This is on all of us."

And it's on us year-round.

hstevens@chicagotribune.com

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 
 

 
 

chicagotribune.com

When holiday generosity runs dry, food pantry needs are still great

Heidi Stevens

We don't do a lot of food drives in February, my family and I.

We're all about the greater good in November and December — collecting winter gear for coat drives, assembling Thanksgiving meals for the homeless, donating toys and food to our favorite charities.

And then we just sort of stop. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Hunger doesn't stop. If anything, it escalates as winter drags on and donations dwindle.

RELATED: TRENDING LIFE & STYLE NEWS THIS HOUR

"We always feel this mixture of deep, deep gratitude combined with a little bit of worry during the holidays," Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told me last week.

I toured the organization's Archer Heights distribution center, which provided some 70 million pounds of food last year to more than 800,000 people across Cook County. A network of 700 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and children and older adult programs gets its food from the Food Depository.

It's a humbling facility, buzzing with volunteers and employees working around-the-clock to combat hunger. In one corner of the massive building, I watched budding chefs who are enrolled in Chicago's Community Kitchens, a free, 14-week program that trains unemployed adults for careers in food service. The students I saw were a week away from graduation, which my tour guide assured me is a festive, emotional, many-ballooned affair.

After the tour, I met Maehr and asked her about post-holiday donating.

"There's this window around Thanksgiving, sometimes Christmas, sometimes year-end as you're getting ready to do your tax work, when we see this incredible outpouring of generosity on all fronts," she said. "Children will make us beneficiaries of their classroom projects. Families come out and volunteer. Our food-drive barrels across the city are overflowing."

And then it stops.

And because of the nature of what's being distributed — food, a lot of it fresh — stockpiling for lean months isn't an option.

"Fifteen years ago, when most of what we distributed came in a can or a box, you could stockpile," Maehr said.

But the Food Depository now aims for 35 percent of its distributed food to be fresh produce, and it no longer accepts donations of chips, soda and junk food.

"We've put an emphasis on connecting families and individuals to more fresh food," Maehr said. "A sweet potato or an ear of corn — that has to move quickly."

January and February can be especially cruel months for families on the brink of hunger.

"It's the time of year when expenses catch up with you," Maehr said. "Maybe you used your credit card to purchase presents. Maybe you have higher heating bills. Maybe your kids are sick and you've got additional bills related to medicine. Maybe you had temporary work for the holidays and your hours got cut."

And when the money runs out, the food runs out.

"These are really difficult months for families," Maehr said. "But the awareness just isn't there."

For those of us who can help, I asked Maehr which goes further — donated money or donated food.

Both, she said with a laugh.

"The economics are that I can take your dollar and spread it further," she said. "When we buy food, I'm not going in and buying one can; I'm buying 20 truckloads. So the prices are much better. And there are opportunities for food to be donated to us, but we have to pay transportation costs. So a lot of potatoes might come to us from Idaho or a lot of apples from Washington state, but we have to pay to transport them. We can use our dollars that way, and it's a lot less expensive per apple than if you were to walk into your local grocery store and buy an apple."

But the power of one human giving food to another human can never be replicated, she said.

"There's something about putting a can of food in a food-drive barrel that connects people to the realness of the problem," Maehr said.

And it's real. Forty-two million Americans live in food-insecure households, including 13 million children, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

"It's a travesty because we live in a country that produces more than enough food," Maehr said. "This isn't a supply chain problem. This isn't warfare or drought. This is about access and politics and poverty and our willingness to address them."

It feels intractable, hunger that deep and widespread. But it's easy enough to chip away at it. The Greater Chicago Food Depository web site (www.chicagosfoodbank.org) has a page of suggestions if you're looking for ways to help.

"This isn't about us and them," Maehr said. "Hunger is in every neighborhood, in every city, in every state. This is on all of us."

And it's on us year-round.

hstevens@chicagotribune.com

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

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