Childhood hunger is an issue that strikes a nerve with me. It’s so arbitrary and useless and causes so much harm, both immediate and long term. I’ve written before about the efforts to fight childhood hunger before and about ConAgra’s Child Hunger Ends Here effort, and seeing it firsthand only brings it home more.
I visited the Barb Food Mart in Dekalb located within the Huntley Middle School. The food pantry had opened just three weeks earlier, and already it’s grown so much. It started with 75 families and this week they were registering over 200. From my eyes, it ran like a well-oiled machine – yet it was only in its third week.
So often we lament the problems but don’t know what we can do to effect change. A friend of mine started a charity to help provide funds to organizations that provide food for children. I’m in awe. And at the Barb Food Mart, the founder – a teacher – saw the problem, had this idea, and wrote the grants that got it started. It truly is one individual.
Personally, I don’t know that I can start an entire food bank on my own, but there is so much more beyond the chief. The entire food pantry is run by volunteers. They determine what food needs to be ordered from the Northern Illinois Food bank. They accept the deliveries and organize them. They stock the shelves and ready the food samples. They help with check in and break down boxes and restock shelves and more when the food pantry is open. One of those jobs? I could absolutely do, and solving the problem isn’t possible without that assistance either.
Until the middle of June, the Barb Food Mart (so named because DeKalb County is where barbed wire was invented) was a metal shop in a middle school. The school graciously gave up its classroom for the pantry, and the volunteers stripped it of its machinery and stations and scrubbed it before bringing in fridges and freezers, shelves and storage to create the pantry.
Thanks to the ambition of Sheryl, who started this food bank, families are able to come to the food bank not just once a month as so many pantries are forced to require but every Thursday, if they so choose. The only requirement is that they have a child in the school district. Families register when they first come, showing a report card or other proof of a child in the schools – and that’s it.
Another major difference with the Barb Food Mart is that there are almost no restrictions on the amount of food a family can take. Thanks to the grant awarded to the Barb Food Mart as well as the fact that they have sufficient storage space, they are able to allow their clients to take as much food as they need for the week, restricting only items like infant medicine and “treat” foods. Most food pantries can’t operate that way, limiting quantities based on a number of factors.
The Barb Food Mart started with a delivery of 6,000 pounds of food to stock their shelves, plus donations of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers. By the third week, they were ready for another 4,000 pound delivery. Based on what they see families taking and using, they are adjusting their orders. For example, they are stocking more rice and fewer boxes of mashed potatoes based on the demand they’re seeing.
As someone not so familiar with the inner workings of food banks, I was fascinated in talking to representatives from the Northern Illinois Food Bank (which stocks the Barb Food Mart, along with other pantries throughout northern Illinois). They have a system that allows them to inventory what they have donated and what they’ve purchased and have it computerized so that food banks can go online to order what they need from available stocks. The sheer sophistication was impressive.
Those deliveries come to the Barb Food Mart on Mondays where volunteers unload and organize the deliveries before the Thursday pantry opens from 3-5pm. The pantry is set up like a store, with clients provided with boxes to carry their selections as they go through – starting with light items and moving towards those that are heavier (because someone is smart). As shelves are depleted, volunteers restock them to ensure everyone has access to the choices they want, keeping it looking organized and professional.
In addition to the expected canned and boxed goods, I loved seeing that clients also have the opportunity to take home fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen meats. Some of them are a little more unusual and require some selling by the volunteers.
The day I attended, there was a ton of kohlrabi, which is ironically one of my favorite veggies. The volunteers offered it up to each family walking past, explaining what it was and offering some suggestions of how to use it. Not everyone took it, but many were willing to try.
There was also a lot of frozen turkey and venison. To help sell that, last week volunteers made chili with the venison that they sampled to the clients. This week, it was turkey meatballs. Showing people ideas for how to use the food and then providing recipes was a great motivator for the families. Many people were reluctant to try it or take it, fearing their children wouldn’t enjoy it, but once they saw their children wolf it down, they changed their minds – a win for everyone.
The food pantry at this time is staffed almost entirely by teachers and retired teachers. Though it started in the summer, the funds are there – as is the need – to keep it going throughout the school year, and therein lies the challenge. I know what teaching is like. When the bell rings at the end of the school day, teachers can’t simply skip out of the building to go do what they wish. Though they are willing, many of the volunteers simply won’t be able to help unload deliveries in the middle of the day on Mondays or stock shelves before the 3pm pantry opening on Thursdays or even work at all at the pantry.
But the need doesn’t stop. The focus is on ending childhood hunger and a #hungerfreesummer, but it needs to continue past that. And this pantry isn’t the only place that could benefit from volunteers as the regulars are pulled to other commitments. Watching the faces of the clients, seeing the relief in their faces as they know where their meals are coming from for another week – that’s motivating. If I lived closer, you can bet I’d be volunteering there myself. Instead, I’ll find somewhere closer where I can help out.
But even just for the day I was there, I couldn’t simply observe and do nothing. So I pitched in, helping to restock shelves of macaroni, straightening out the canned green beans, offering up some of my favorite recipes for kohlrabi. And boy did it feel good!
Because the need is staggering. In Lake County, the Northern Illinois Food Bank region closest to me, 16.2% of children are living in poverty. Over 18% are food insecure. That’s why in just Lake county alone, the Northern Illinois Food Bank distributed over 7.7 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2013, providing over 6.4 million meals.
It’s staggering to me. Yet I saw the hope provided by one woman with a vision. I saw the impact a dedicated group of volunteers made. I saw the assistance provided by a grant from ConAgra. And it’s inspiring. We may not solve this problem today or tomorrow, but by taking steps forward and each and every one of us doing what we can to create even just a small impact, it matters – and we will one day end child hunger.