“Forty million people struggle with hunger in the United States, including more than 12 million children.”
That’s a 2017 statistic from Feeding America, the “nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization” that has created a network of 200 food banks across the country. Statistics like that are staggering, but their sheer volume also can make them abstract and difficult to wrap one’s head around.
Breaking it down further: In Illinois, Feeding America estimates that nearly 1.5 million people struggle with food insecurity. Children make up roughly one-third of that total.
So what do these statistics look like on a local level in Lake County?
In a special report for Lake County included in its quadrennial study series “Hunger in America 2014,” Feeding America determined that nearly 70,000 people in the county are “food insecure.”
Furthermore, “at least 40 percent” of these individuals and families included in the estimation earn too much money to qualify for any type of federal nutritional assistance programs.
According to the report, the Northern Illinois Food Bank – a member of the Feeding America network – has partnered with more than 60 agencies in Lake County to help run more than 100 food programs, including food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
“I think poverty looks different in the suburbs, so people don’t always see it,” Libertyville Township Supervisor Kathleen O’Connor said.
“If you go back to pre-2008, if you saw someone come in for the food pantry driving a Lexus, you would go, ‘What’s this guy trying to scam,’” Lake Villa Township Supervisor Dan Venturi said in a telephone interview. “Now after 2008, that’s not the case anymore. They may have a Lexus, but it’s probably mortgaged to the hilt, and they don’t have any money. A lot of people who used to have money don’t have it anymore. You’re not necessarily aware of who needs the help and you want people to feel comfortable to come forward and ask for it.”
On paper, a family or an individual may earn what looks like an average or above average income, O’Connor said, but “to live here [in Lake County], when you talk about gas, car, school, rent, utilities, groceries, and what you’re taxed and child care … it’s really difficult.”
The Libertyville Township food pantry is open to township residents. Because the pantry relies entirely on donations – no government funding is disbursed to stock its shelves and freezers – it does not require any proof of income to be eligible for this service, O’Connor said.
The township created its own 501(c)3 in order to participate with the Northern Illinois Food Bank and any cash donations it receives are used to buy food from there.
Several township governments offer other assistance programs to residents as well. However, those often require proof of financial eligibility, while food pantries typically do not – although O’Connor did point out each township is different and has its own set of requirements and/or eligibility where its assistance programs are concerned, including food pantries.
“[The food pantry] takes some of the stress off,” she said. “It doesn’t fix the problem and they can use other food pantries in the area, but hopefully it lessens the burden a bit.”
While these food pantries are dedicated to providing assistance to those who need it most, their communities are equally dedicated to supporting the food pantries through donations – be it food items, money or man hours and community events such as food drives.
Every year on the second Saturday of May, postal workers in more than 10,000 cities across the country participate in “Stamp Out Hunger.”
“It’s a very good opportunity for us,” Venturi said of the postal workers’ food drive. “You picture those big mail bins – we could get six or eight of those full of food.”
One of the greatest challenges for food pantries, Venturi added, is simply getting the word out that it exists and is ready to help families who need it. To address that issue, the Lake Villa Township food pantry participates in several local parades and their trademark caboose is there both to collect food donations and to raise awareness about it.
Like the Libertyville Township food pantry, Lake Villa requires only proof of residency and that individuals establish a need for assistance in good faith.
“It could be a temporary problem that you’re having [or] it could be a long-term sustained one,” he said. “With the temporary [government] shutdown, we reached out to members who might not be getting a paycheck.”
The Warren Township food pantry also reached out to families suffering financial hardships because of the partial government shutdown, temporarily suspending its residency requirement and opening its food pantry to any government employee affected by the shutdown.
“It didn’t matter where they lived,” Warren Township Food Pantry coordinator Stephanie Smuda said in a telephone interview. “Even if they weren’t residents, we helped them out. We wanted to be there for anyone.”
Asking for help can be a humbling experience, and there still exists a certain stigma around visiting food pantries. Smuda said she takes special care to ease any apprehension a person may feel when registering with the food pantry.
“I actually had one family come in and they were signing up and in the process they were crying,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We’re the ones that donate, we’re the ones who help out and now we need help.’ And I always tell [people]: That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to bridge that gap. We’re here to help out and it really warms my heart to be able to help people who are just in a rough spot.”
Hours: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Friday
Requirements: Proof of residency, proof of income (eligibility based on SNAP income brackets)
Lake Villa Township
Hours: 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Thursday; 7 a.m. to noon Friday
Requirements: Proof of residency, establish a need for services
Hours: 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Tuesday
Requirements: Proof of residency