While people throughout the country finish their Thanksgivings leftovers and anticipate further festive fare, some see the season as a time to reflect on the less fortunate.
Charitable organizations throughout the United States traditionally step up fundraising efforts during the weeks leading up to Christmas. The money such organizations as the Salvation Army raise during their seasonal fund drives are often used to buy food for people who would otherwise not be able to afford a Christmas dinner.
But food insecurity is not just a seasonal problem. According to a September 2017 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40 million Americans were food insecure, including 12 million children. The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
“One of the challenges that we confront in battling hunger is that many Americans believe that the hungry are exclusively on distant shores,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of the hunger relief organization Feeding America, in a Nov. 27 article in USA Today. “We also sometimes think that we know what hungry people look like. But the truth is that there are people struggling with hunger in every single county in the United States. The hidden face of hunger could be a coworker, an elderly neighbor or a classmate.”
Major resources for combating food insecurity in Tazewell County are the Midwest Food Bank and the Peoria Area Food Bank. Midwest Food Bank has divisions in Morton, Peoria and Bloomington-Normal, as well as locations in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Haiti and Kenya.
“We serve food pantries and large agencies,” said Carol Jankowski, Midwest Food Bank – Morton executive director. “We do not serve individuals. We’re sort of that middle step between a large food manufacturer and a pantry.”
Midwest Food Bank – Morton serves 25 agencies in Tazewell County and Midwest Food Bank – Peoria serves 308 agencies in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and eastern Iowa. Peoria Area Food Bank supplies food and grocery products to a network of 80 pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Tazewell, Peoria and Mason counties.
“In 2018 so far, we’ve given out more than 1,800,000 pounds of food,” said Wayne Cannon, Peoria Area Food Bank manager. “The need is great. It’s easy to talk about the person who may have lost a job when you think about who might need help from a food pantry for short-term purposes. But there are also people with developmental issues who might not quite know how to handle their money. Or people who are under-employed might never have enough food to feed their families, even though they work 30 to 40 hours a week.”
Pekin Salvation Army relies on both Midwest Food Bank and Peoria Area Food Bank.
“What the Salvation Army tries to do in the different communities we’re in is fill the gaps,” said Rich Draeger, Salvation Army Tri-County development director. “If someone comes to us homeless and needing a place to stay, we try to find them a place to stay. But we also want to work hard at keeping them in their homes. That might be as simple as helping with utility payments or helping with food.”
A recent change that the Pekin Salvation Army’s food pantry has made is in its method of food distribution, Drager added. Instead of passing out pre-made parcels, the Pekin Salvation Army allows individuals and families to pick out the items that best suit their needs.
According to statistics from Feeding America, food insecurity in the United States has been trending downward in recent years. In 2014, the percentage of the U.S. population was 15.4. That number declined to 13.4 percent in 2015 and fell to 12.9 percent in 2016. The food insecurity rate in Illinois has steadily fallen from 12.9 percent in 2014 to 11.7 percent in 2015 to 11 percent in 2016. Tazewell County’s food insecurity rate has been consistently below that state average: 10.9 percent in 2014, 10.4 percent in 2015 and 9.7 percent in 2016.
“I don’t think the need for food from pantries is growing,” said Paula LaFond, administrative director of the Morton-based food pantry Community Harvest. “I think it’s been pretty stable in the past five years. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, the need grew because the economy was worse. We haven’t had as much demand because more people are getting jobs.”
Jankowski believes that donations from large food manufacturers have consistently kept food banks abreast of community needs over the years.
“In Morton, we receive two semi (18-wheeled truck) loads of food a week,” she said. “In turn, we distribute that to the agencies we serve. We obviously couldn’t do what we do without donations of food. But more importantly, we couldn’t do the scope of work we do without the volunteers who are here in our facility every day. As an organization, we had 175,000 hours of volunteer work this year. Volunteers are critical to our mission.”
National and regional food insecurity numbers appear to be trending steadily downward, donations that generally keep up with demand, and community volunteerism are encouraging developments. However, the lack of reliable access to nutritious, affordable food will always be a concern, said LaFond.
Feeding America determined that there is an annual food budget shortfall of $21,122,544,000. Illinois’ food budget shortfall is $669,207,000 per year and Tazewell County’s annual food budget shortfall is $5,984,000.
“There’s always a need. There’s always going to be a need,” said LaFond. “You’ll always have the poor, the young, the elderly, the jobless and the mentally ill who are going to be vulnerable to food insecurity. We, as a society, need to take care of our own.”