Raucous chants from anti-hunger advocates filled the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol on a recent afternoon, drifting down the halls of power and stopping lawmakers in their tracks.

“End hunger now!”

“End hunger now!”

The rally was a part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s annual Illinois End Hunger NOW Lobby Day on May 15. Busloads of anti-hunger advocates traveled to Springfield to urge lawmakers to support legislation that will reduce hunger in Illinois. For many who made the journey from Chicago, the mission was personal, having experienced food insecurity themselves or witnessed it through their work.

“I’ve previously been homeless. I’ve been famished before,” said Glennis Lenoir, 32, who brought his 4-year-old daughter, Iyende, along for the day. “I’m here because I don’t want others to have to go through hunger.”

Glennis Lenoir and his daughter, Iyende.

Duane Wright, 59, had never before traveled south of 95th Street in Chicago, he said. Making the three-plus hour trip to Springfield wasn’t easy for Wright, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But he felt it was important to make the effort.

“I enjoy helping people in need. And I like to voice my opinion,” said Wright, who works at the Abundant Life Missionary Baptist Church pantry in West Englewood.

Advocates gathered for the rally in the Capitol rotunda, most of them decked out in bright green shirts that said: “End Hunger Now.”

Nicole Robinson, the Food Depository’s vice president of community impact, stepped to the lectern, looked out at the crowd and thrust her fist into the air.

“It is not sane nor is it moral for kids to wake up hungry every day or go to bed hungry,” Robinson said. “It makes no sense for … individuals who are homebound to not have access to food. It’s not moral for people to be victims of modern-day slavery – human trafficking – who have been through so much already and we don’t want to give them food. That’s why we are here today to fight for these individuals.”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

This year’s legislative priorities include:

Bill HB3343:  The SNAP Prepared Meals Program adds a prepared/hot meals option to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for recipients who are disabled, elderly or experiencing homeless.

Bill HB2118:  Extends the Victims of Trafficking, Torture and Other Serious Crimes (VTTC) program for immigrant victims to receive medical, food, and cash assistance. This program is scheduled to end this year if an extension is not passed. HB2118 seeks to extend the program indefinitely.

Bill SB1791: Build a strong and effective SNAP Employment and Training Program by moving Illinois in line with best practices identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This change will encourage more organizations to participate in Employment and Training, create more slots and allow the program to draw down more federal funds.

Bill SB1641: End hunger on college campuses by allowing the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) to identify and notify college students that could be eligible for SNAP.

Marilyn Gonzalez, a 21-year-old college student who’s also pantry coordinator at Mayfair Food Pantry, was eager to advocate for the bill that addresses food insecurity among college students.

“We have to speak up for our people who are struggling,” Gonzalez said. “If I don’t, who will?”

When talking with legislators, Gonzalez stressed how hard it can be for her classmates to succeed in school while also making ends meet.

Advocates brought signs to bring a personal touch to the day.

Sharing personal experiences with lawmakers is what makes Lobby Day so important, said Aimee Ramirez, the Food Depository’s manager of government relations and policy.

“Mobilizing our network of clients, volunteers and coordinators is invaluable because they can share with legislators, ‘These are the problems that exist in my community,’” Ramirez said. “And legislators see that someone cared about the issue so deeply that they came to Springfield to tell them about it. Advocating goes so much further when legislators listen to what we have to say, in person.”

That’s why Elizabeth Arreola signed up for Lobby Day. At age 63, Arreola had never seen politics up close.

“I had this picture that people involved in politics are all about themselves,” said Arreola, volunteer director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul District IX food pantry.

“But after seeing how they cared about what we had to say and seeing the process and time they spend in meetings, it really gets you fired up to continue fighting for these policies with the help of legislators,” Arreola said.

Arreola hopes to involve more young people in her food pantry’s mission, including advocacy.

“I won’t feel finished with my purpose until I engaged the next generation,” Arreola said. “What’s the point of doing all this work, if it all ends when you stop working?”

The work doesn’t end in Springfield. Ramirez hopes that advocates continue to rally, even after Lobby Day ends.

Advocacy is a long-term relationship if it is going to be effective,” Ramirez said. “It’s not enough just to go to Springfield for lobby day and then be done until next year. We need these issues to always be on legislators’ minds.”

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