The Challenging Experiences of our Hungry Neighbors

This article was published in the April 2015 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

During Lent, it’s common for people to give up guilty pleasures like chocolate or wine. But for one out of seven northern Illinois residents, guilty pleasures are not an option because even a regular meal is not guaranteed.

As we reflect upon our Lenten experience and come into the Easter season, I thought it would be a good time to learn more about the challenging experiences of our hungry neighbors.

“Here’s a can of tuna. I can’t tell you how many things I can make with tuna,” said Paula, a single mother who turned to a food pantry to feed her young daughters after leaving a domestic violence situation.

For Mike, who is retired and living off of social security, the food he gets from the pantry is his life line.

“This is the margin between surviving and not surviving,” he said.

For people like Paula and Mike, having access to a food pantry is life changing. Often, hungry families have to choose between paying for medicine or food, or utilities and food.

“The food budget is one of the first things to get cut,” said Erik Jacobsen, the communications manager for the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

The food bank, which serves 13 counties in Illinois, distributes food to more than 800 community food pantries and feeding programs. In 2014, a volunteer force of more than 23,000 people helped make the food bank successfully operate.

“Our volunteers are the backbone of everything we do,” Jacobsen said.

The food bank is a clearinghouse of sorts where large shipments of food—perishable and non-perishable—come in from grocery stores, food manufacturers and other sources. The food is sorted, inspected and repackaged by volunteers before being distributed to food pantries and feeding programs in the Northern Illinois Food Bank network.

“The food pantries and soup kitchens are where we reach hungry neighbors who are seeking food assistance,” Jacobsen said. On average, people seeking food assistance in Northern Illinois do so eight times per year, according to data from Feeding America’s Hunger in America 2014 study.

“Nutrition is a huge element of our feeding programs. We want to make sure that people in need have access to healthy foods like good fresh, produce,” said Jennifer Lamplough, director of nutrition programs at the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

But what remains central to the organization’s heart are the people who seek food and are fed. Because of the food assistance, Paula was able to enroll in community college and is studying to become a nurse; and Mike is able to pay child support for his son and eat regular, healthy meals.

“The face of hunger is changing, and this is an issue that exists in every community,” said Jacobsen. “Don’t assume those around you have access to a regular meal—for our hungry neighbors, guilty pleasures often aren’t even in the picture.”

To volunteer or donate, go to www.feedingamerica.org to find your local food bank.

If you’re a Northern Illinois resident, visit Northern Illinois Food Bank’s website at www.SolveHungerToday.org for information on how to get involved. If you know someone in need of food assistance, visit www.SolveHungerToday.org/gethelp to find the nearest food pantry or feeding program in Northern Illinois.

food pantry

A woman selects food from the Frankfort Township food pantry.

Healthy Hearty Cabbage Soup

By Jennifer Lamplough, director of nutrition programs at Northern Illinois Food Bank

Yield: 10 servings
Serving Size: 1 cup

INGREDIENTS

Cooking spray
2 medium carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 small green cabbage, cored and roughly chopped
1 pound lean turkey breakfast sausage, crumbled
40 ounces fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 small loaf Irish Soda Bread

DIRECTIONS

  1. Coat a large soup pot with cooking spray. Add carrots, celery, onion and cabbage and sauté over medium-high heat for 3 minutes or onions until clear. Remove from pan and set aside.
  2. Add turkey sausage and cook until brown, about 6-7 minutes. Add vegetables back to pan and mix.
  3. Add remaining ingredients (except soda bread) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Serve with Irish Soda Bread.
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