Families’ economic struggles continue, and nowhere are their woes more evident than at local food pantries. More and more families are relying on food pantries to stretch their budgets because there is little left for food after paying housing and utility bills. And, as Thanksgiving nears, families’ needs and pantries’ attempts to help are more poignant.
“Last Thanksgiving, we thought that the economy was starting to improve a little bit. We had hit a record number but the rapid growth had slowed,” said Melissa Travis, senior director of programs—basic services for (PRC) in Wheaton. “Unfortunately, this year we are seeing another uptick in growth. There are a lot of people who are really struggling right now.”
The PRC offers a number of services including literacy education and job training, and is DuPage County’s largest food pantry.
Travis said the agency started seeing an uptick in its food pantry numbers in June and July. “And they are still going up,” she said. “We are projecting to serve 3,500 families during the month of November this year; up about 10 percent from last November.”
The PRC does not keep records on why people come to the food pantry, but Travis said anecdotal information indicates “a lot of people are still out of work and their unemployment benefits have run out; they may have been squeaking by before.
“We see everybody from people that had six-figure jobs to people who were barely getting by before the recession.”
She tells the story of a recent patron of the pantry.
"We had a woman come for the first time last week—30-something, with a couple of children, going through a divorce and looking for a job. She just doesn’t have the resources right now to pay for her living expenses, gas, etc. so she is using the food pantry as a little relief in her budget. That is the kind of new people we are seeing; the people who have just hit a rough patch. A lot of employers are not hiring right now.”
And this woman’s experience is not unique. Stories like hers have played out since the economy started to tank in 2006.
“In November 2006, we served less than 1,500 families,” Travis said. “This November, we will serve 3,500 families.”
Figuring an average of four people per family that means the PRC is helping 14,000 people, up from 6,000 in 2006.
Travis said 61,000 people in DuPage County live below the poverty level, which is less than $22,000 for a family of four.
“And we all know you can’t live on $22,000 in DuPage County. And another 160,000 living on less than $44,000 a year.”
For Thanksgiving this year, the PRC is trying to supply every one of its families with a $10 gift card to help buy a turkey. The PRC is supplying the side dishes: stuffing, potatoes and gravy.
“We purchase a good bit of our food from the . The real question is how do we afford to purchase food? About 60 percent of our donors are individuals and the other 40 percent comes from grant money from foundations, fundraisers and government sources.”
Travis is grateful to the public, which has stepped up to increase its support to represent 60 percent of PRC’s funding. “We are really supported by the public,” she said, adding that donations can be made online at .
Local food pantries, like in Elmhurst, purchase food from NIFB with cash donations they receive. NIFB supplements the donations the local pantries receive on-site. NIFB is a non-profit organization that provides food to hungry people in 13 Illinois counties outside of Cook County through its more than 600 partner agencies. NIFB acquires, gathers, handles, and distributes donated, government and purchased food to more than 60,000 people each week.
Donna Lake, NIFB communications director, said the need is growing.
“One pantry told me that from October 2006 to October this year, it saw a 7 percent increase,” she said. “Other pantries have told me they have 100 new families register each month. There are so many factors.
“Unemployed people’s benefits are running out, they have gone through their savings or put all their money toward their housing costs. Some of those laid off for awhile have been doing what they can to keep their houses and coming to the pantries to supplement to make sure they have enough.
“They are making hard choices; seniors are seeing increased medical bills and are making choices between medicine and food. Or if you get a job, it pays less than before. They are grateful for the job, but cover the basics and don’t have money at the end of the day for food.”
Donations to NIFB can be made to northernilfoodbank.org.
Area people whose job it is to fight hunger know that the fight is not confined to just the holidays.
“Hunger does not go away after the holidays,” said Travis of PRC. “The people who are struggling in November and December are not going to be springing back to life in January and February. All the support we get from the community has been incredible. We have been here 36 years, and could not be here without the support of the community.”