Breakfast in America - Food pantries feeling pinch, worst to come

DeWayne Bartels & Amy Gehrt
Glenvary Lucas, family services director for the Heartland Division of The Salvation Army, says, “It’s hard to keep enough food here to fill the food orders.”

The Salvation Army, operating one of the biggest food pantries in Peoria, is seeing a marked increase this year in the demand for food assistance.

“It’s been crazy. We’re going through so many food orders,” said Glenvary Lucas, family services director for the Heartland Division of The Salvation Army, in Peoria. “It’s hard to keep enough food here to fill the food orders.”

Norma Weaver, divisional social services director, responsible for Salvation Army food pantries across Central Illinois and Eastern Iowa, said despite their efforts and those of 34 other food pantries in Peoria and Tazewell counties, there are still people going hungry. Weaver said the Salvation Army food pantry through October assisted 2,204 families with 5,560 family members.

Tight belt

“Most of us, we are concerned about where we will eat and what we will eat there. But, a growing segment of our community wonder if they will eat at all,” Weaver said. “What happens when someone is hungry? We see physical and mental health problems arise. You start noticing more crime, too. When you are hungry you make bad decisions.” 

The demand at the Salvation Army food pantry is up so far this year, she said. But, she added, the worst has probably not hit yet.

“I think this year, with extended unemployment benefits, it hasn’t been as bad as it’s going to get. After the Christmas season I think we’re going to see a large surge in people using the food pantry.”

Lucas added, “We have so many people coming in now for food who used to donate.”

The Salvation Army food pantry, Weaver said, has already seen spot shortages.

“When there’s a shortage we have to cut back. Instead of four days’ worth of food we can only give out three days’ worth,” Weaver said.

The demand has risen, Weaver said, because of higher unemployment, people off work for medical reasons, families doubling up and people seeing their hours at work cut.

“When hours get cut, the rent or house payment stays the same. Something has to give. Often it is the food budget,” Weaver said.

Weaver said perishable goods like fresh fruit and vegetables have been in the shortest supply. Gardens this year, she said, were not as plentiful as usual.

But, Weaver said she does not let the higher demand and shorter supplies worry her.

“Being from a faith-based organization, our outlook is that God will provide,” she said. “It’s easy to give things away. I admit it’s harder to find the resources now to give things away.”

Other local food banks and pantries are also feeling the pinch. At the

Demand rising

At Midwest Food Bank in Peoria, which currently supplies food to about 180 food pantries in Central Illinois, there has been a 30 to 40 percent increase in demand. And because donations have not risen as much as needs, there are about 45 agencies the food bank is unable to help right now. Larry Herman, director of the Midwest Food Bank in Peoria, said every month they feel the demand growing, and hear from food pantries that are running out of food.

“It’s the impact of the times we are living in now,” he said. “We are hoping and praying that will level off.” 

The three largest-growing groups in need are the unemployed, working mothers and the elderly, Herman reported. Some former volunteers are also now finding themselves in need.

“It’s heartrending when you see people who used to volunteer here come in because they now need food,” Herman said.

By the end of the year, the Midwest Food Bank expects to have given out 211,000 cases of food, amounting to between $8-9 million dollars in food products. Herman credited a legion of local volunteers for the ability to supply so much to those in need.

“Everything that comes in goes directly to the cause. We couldn’t make it without the 500 volunteers we have each month. We are so thankful for the city of Peoria and the volunteers,” Herman said. “We not only provide a source of food products, but a resource for volunteerism. And for us, those two are joined together – you can’t have one without the other.”

Barb Shreves, director of the Peoria Area Food Bank, echoed that sentiment: “We had a little girl the other night who took it upon herself to hold a food drive; she went out into the community and gathered over 290 pounds of food all by herself.”

Shreves said the girl, who was about 9-years-old, heard people were going hungry and wanted to help.

The Peoria Area Food Bank serves more than 70 food pantries in Peoria County, which, in turn, serve 35,000 to 40,000 people a month. Needs have risen by about 1 million pounds of food this year, and the elderly are being especially hard-hit.

“They have such a limited budget, and with the light bill and prescription medications it’s just devastated their budget and they don’t have any money left over to purchase the necessary food items,” Shreves said.

First-timers

Pantries are reporting an increase in families and those visiting a food pantry for the first time.

First-time visitors also are on the rise at the Friendship House’s food pantry.

Betty Menson, director of emergency services for the Friendship House, says needs are growing by leaps and bounds there as well, nearly double what it was last year.

“It’s really draining our resources as far as supplying proteins and meats. … Just the meats alone are running us a couple of hundred dollars a week,” Menson said.

Thanks in part to Illinois Harvest and the Midwest Food Bank, the organization has not had to turn anyone away.

“In October, we served 131 households – 165 adults and 88 children – in the 61603 zip code,” Menson said.

South Side Mission’s Benevolence Center is also seeing an uptick in demand.

“We are seeing a lot of middle-class, hard-working families coming in for food,” said Steven Dunn, director of the Benevolence Center.

He reports distributing an average of 12,000 pounds of food each month to residents in need. He says donations are actually up, but noted times often become more challenging in January, once holiday food-basket programs end.

All of the organizations rely on donations and food drives, such as the upcoming citywide canned-food and coat drive at the Santa Claus Parade. A collaboration from the Salvation Army, the Midwest Food Bank and the City of Peoria, volunteers will be accepting donations as they walk the parade route Friday. Donations may also be dropped off from 9 a.m. to noon that day at the Gateway Building.

Meanwhile, the Friendship House is teaming up with CityLink and Kroger stores for their annual Stuff-A-Bus food drive throughout the month of November.

To donate, hold a food drive or volunteer for one of the food banks or pantries mentioned in this story, contact the organization: Friendship House: 671-5200, www.peoriafriendshiphouse.org

Midwest Food Bank of Peoria: 691-5270, www.midwestfoodbank.org

Peoria Area Food Bank: 671-3906, www.pcceo.org/foodbank.htm

South Side Mission Benevolence Center: 673-1041, www.southsidemission.org