The Greater Chicago Food Depository is committed to distributing fresh produce to all those in need in Cook County. In fiscal year 2012-2013 the Food Depository met its produce distribution goal: Nearly one third - 21 million pounds of food distributed was fresh fruit and vegetables.
This continuing commitment helps our neighbors when they need food most. It helps people like Dave Blakeman, who was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago.
"I never expected to go from having a full-time job to living day-to-day, wondering how I was going to feed my family," he said.
Dave is currently undergoing treatment and can no longer work. He is quickly spending his savings paying medical bills and taking care of his family in Frankfort, a southern suburb. It's a struggle for Dave to afford food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.
He gets apples, oranges, bananas, onions, and corn from the Food Depository's Producemobile distribution in Richton Park.
"This definitely fills in the gaps," Dave said. "I have a wife and two boys at home and with this food I know they'll get the nutrition they need."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 18,000 veterans in Cook County living below the poverty level. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is expanding its veterans outreach in order to meet the increased need.
The Food Depository supported Veterans Stand Down events in November and June by serving free meals prepared by Chicago's Community Kitchens staff.
Michael White, 57, who served overseas for nine years and is now homeless, came to the Stand Down in June.
"Events like this make [veterans] feel appreciated," Michael said. "I'm hungry, but this meal makes it better."
In addition to food, Stand Down events provide shelter, clothing, health screenings and other vital services to Veterans. At the June event, the Food Depository distributed 200 meals and 750 bags of fresh produce and shelf-stable food. The Food Depository's SNAP Outreach team also submitted more than 60 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications on behalf of Veterans.
In fiscal year 2013-2014, the Food Depository aims to provide hot meals to 800 Veterans and distribute 2,000 takeaway food bags at Stand Down events. Further, the Food Depository is partnering with the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center to open a choice-model food pantry for Veterans later this year.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository's Chicago's Community Kitchens (CCK) program reached a milestone in fiscal year 2012-2013. In December, the program graduated its 1,000th student.
CCK is a 14-week foodservice training program for unemployed and underemployed individuals. It gives students the skills needed to succeed in a foodservice career, and teaches life skills which can help break their individual cycle of poverty.
That was precisely the case for James Gombash, who graduated from the CCK program last August. When James applied for the program, he had recently been released from prison and was looking for a fresh start.
"I needed a change in my life," James said. "I wanted to turn things around."
He was accepted into the program, graduated, and has been working full time at J&L Catering for almost a year. He now has access to healthcare benefits, paid time off, and a 401(k).
"It's absolutely fantastic. Everything is changing in my life," James said.
In fiscal year 2012-2013, 114 students graduated from Chicago's Community Kitchens.
In Illinois, 1 in 5 households eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are not enrolled in the program. That equates to $45 million per month in SNAP dollars that could be available to people in need. Connecting clients to their benefits is a critical part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository's anti-hunger efforts, and in fiscal year 2012-2013, the Food Depository's SNAP Outreach program submitted more than 4,000 SNAP applications on behalf of clients.
One such client is Shari Ginsberg, who lives in Buffalo Grove. In 2009, she was laid off from a job in sales after working at the company for 10 years. Since then, she's had a number of part-time jobs, but still has trouble making ends meet. She received assistance re-applying for SNAP benefits from the Food Depository's SNAP Outreach team.
"They've been wonderful," she said. "They followed up to make sure everything was okay after the application went in, and they're just awesome. I've given out their number to three or four other people."
Shari receives $200 per month in SNAP benefits, which allows her to spend the unemployment money she receives on essentials like toiletries and gas to get to and from job interviews.
"Honestly, [SNAP] really has saved my life," she said. When you're only making $67 per week in unemployment, how can you live? SNAP lets me live a more normal life again and it gives me back my pride."
In fiscal year 2012-2013, individuals and families received 3.9 million meals because of the Food Depository's SNAP Outreach program.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository's 28th Annual Hunger Walk had a unique meaning for each participant - it was a 5K, a fundraiser, a rally, a celebration. But for many clients that walked with member agencies, it was a way to say, "thank you."
The Union Avenue United Methodist Church Food Pantry in the Canaryville neighborhood brought 60 people to the event in June 45 of them were food pantry clients, including Bob Russell.
Bob is a widower and father of four. He used to fuel planes at Midway but got sick and can no longer work. He volunteers at Union Avenue and also gets food from the pantry once a month to help supplement the $295 he receives in SNAP benefits.
"My entire family looks forward to the Hunger Walk," he said. "It means a lot to be able to walk with everyone else. I don't have the money to give, so walking is a way for us to give back."
As a volunteer and a client, Bob sees the uplifting impact of the Hunger Walk from a unique angle.
"Chicago is a city of pride," he said. "The Food Depository's work and the Hunger Walk give people in need their pride back."
More than 12,000 men, women, and children participated in this year's Hunger Walk the largest turnout in the event's history.
Christine Villagomez, from Elgin, relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the Willow Creek Community Church's food pantry to feed her husband and three children. She receives $167 per month in SNAP, and gets the rest of the food she needs at Willow Creek, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency.
A cut to the SNAP program could be devastating for her family.
"Food is expensive right now," she said. "We need everything we can get, because it all helps. Before we went on SNAP last year, we had no food last Thanksgiving. I was too proud to go to the pantry but now it helps my family tremendously."
Depending on the severity of cuts to SNAP, hundreds of thousands of people could see their benefits reduced or eliminated, which is why the Food Depository vigorously advocated for the protection of federal nutrition safety net programs in fiscal year 2012-2013.
Food Depository staff connected U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) with Christine's story, which Rep. Duckworth then shared on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I hope every Member in this body will agree that in the wealthiest nation in the world, no American child should go to school hungry and no parent should have to make the difficult decision between paying rent or paying for groceries. This is simply unconscionable," Rep. Duckworth said in her speech.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) participated in the SNAP Challenge, and wrote an opinion piece published in the Daily Herald promoting the benefits of SNAP.
"SNAP works to ensure that children have enough food, that underpaid workers can feed their families, and that seniors don't have to choose between buying food or their medicine," Rep. Schakowsky wrote in the piece.
The Food Depository's efforts were successful, as Reps. Schakowsky, Duckworth and all Cook County lawmakers voted against the Farm Bill proposal that would have cut $20.5 billion from SNAP.
Joe Virruso, 74, eats dinner at the Clyde Park District intergenerational meal program in Cicero five days a week. If Joe wasn't eating there, he'd be hard-pressed to find a consistent source of food.
"I wouldn't be able to eat these kinds of meals at home. If I wasn't here, I'd just be eating fillers," he said. "Every time I go into the store, prices are a few cents more than they were the week before. I just can't afford food."
Joe receives only $16 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits per month, and is living on $14,000 per year in Social Security income. Most of his income goes towards medical bills and utility costs and he barely has any left over for food.
"I come here because I get a healthy meal," Joe said. "But I also come because otherwise, I'd be eating alone. It's really nice to get out and talk to people."
Joe is just one of many individuals who benefit from the program, which provides hot meal service to older adults and children Monday through Friday. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the program served more than 5,200 meals - a 65 percent increase from the previous year.
Including older adult food distributions across Cook County, the Food Depository served meals to more than 75,000 older adults last fiscal year.
4-year-old Alex and 3-year-old Jose Ruiz's favorite game is Sorry.
They love counting the numbers and moving their pieces. They're bubbly, easygoing kids who just love being outside. They play games every day on the sidewalk in front of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church on the Near West Side, while they wait for the Greater Chicago Food Depository's Lunch Bus.
They play the games to keep their minds off being hungry.
"We don't really eat dinner," Jose said.
Every day around 3 p.m., the Lunch Bus brings nutritious meals that include a sandwich, fresh fruit and a vegetable. The lunches help the boys' father, Jose Sr., feed his children.
"It helps a lot," he said. "I lost my job at a restaurant two years ago and have been looking for something ever since. I've had a few interviews but no job offers."
Jose's wife works full-time in a meat packaging plant, but the couple still has trouble feeding their children, which is why the Lunch Bus is so important to Jose's family.
"It's a healthy meal, and the kids love it," he said.
This summer, the Food Depository's programs fed more than 282,000 children.
In November 2012, the Greater Chicago Food Depository underwent its first-ever Silliker Food Safety Audit a rigorous assessment used by leaders in the food industry to evaluate facility food safety and quality systems and achieved an overall score of 98.9 out of a possible 100.
The Food Depository is committed to being a leader in food safety. That commitment benefits every individual the Food Depository serves, but is especially critical for high-risk populations such as older adults and young children.
"It's so important that food is kept fresh," said Ethel Joe Lewis, a 74-year-old retired nurse who gets bananas, apples, peaches and lettuce from the older adult food distribution at the Southeast Atlas Senior Center in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. "People can get sick so easily if food isn't taken care of."
Nearly 150 older adults receive food from the bi-monthly distribution some of whom have sensitive health concerns and rely upon the fact that the food they get from the Food Depository will be safe to eat.
"The food I get here helps a lot on my grocery bill. It's not old produce it's completely fresh and that's great," Ethel said.
The Food Depository will undergo another Silliker Audit this fall.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository's food distribution has kept up with demand, despite an increasing need in our community.
One way this is accomplished is through the Food Rescue program. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the Food Depository distributed more than 10.2 million pounds of Food Rescue food an increase of more than 1 million pounds compared to the previous year.
The Food Rescue program recovers prepared, perishable, and shelf-stable food from grocery stores, such as meat, dairy products and produce, which would otherwise be discarded if not sold.
St. Columbanus Food pantry in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side serves approximately 500 clients per week, and can offer fresh turkey, pork and other protein and produce because of the Food Rescue program.
"It's what I come here to get," said Veronica Hyde, a client who receives meat at the pantry. "Meat is so pricey, and I know what I'm getting here will be high quality stuff."
The Food Depository has also been able to keep up with the need through an increase in strategic food purchasing. In fiscal year 2012-2013, 22 million pounds of food was purchased an increase of more than 8 million pounds from the previous year. The expansion of food purchasing helps compensate for a decrease in the amount of government food that the Food Depository receives.