When a vanload of staff members and advocates departed the Greater Chicago Food Depository parking lot for the 2023 Springfield Lobby Day, the vehicle was filled with printed talking points, a few nerves, and, most importantly, impassioned voices.
“You’re here to lift your voices,” Food Depository CEO Kate Maehr told the roughly two dozen Food Depository Lobby Day participants later that evening in Springfield during a final advocacy training session.
“Thousands of our neighbors are not sure where their next meal will come from. We can and must do better.”
The group traveled to Springfield to meet with state senators and representatives to encourage their support and funding of two key bills. The first, Breakfast After the Bell, would provide more students free breakfast options in their classrooms. If passed, this bill would ensure that more children receive the all-important first meal of the day, helping them learn, grow, and thrive.
The second, Farm to Food Bank, would better connect Illinois farmers and their produce with food banks. This bill would result in more fresh produce at food pantries, benefiting pantry guests as well as local farmers.
Both bills had passed the state House of Representatives unanimously and now needed approval by the Senate, as well as funding.
“These bills are close to my heart, especially Farm to Food Bank” said Wendy Daniels, director of food services at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, a Food Depository partner. “In our community, food options are crummy. Lots of processed foods. We want farmers to supply more options for students, kids and families.”
“This bill would lead to healthier communities.”
A Lobby Day veteran, Daniels was excited to be part of the group this year, the first Lobby Day since 2019 due to the pandemic. “It’s encouraging for me to speak up for those who can’t,” she said. “It’s unfathomable that in our rich country, our rich state, there are hungry people.”
Before meeting with State Senator Linda Holmes to thank her for introducing the Farm to Food Bank bill years ago and to encourage her support of Breakfast After the Bell, Janet Edmonson-Woods, Vi Nedd-Jackman, and Debra Strickland were nervous. All first-time Lobby Day participants, they were inspired to join the group by the needs they see every day in the communities they serve at Food Depository partner pantries.
Kate Maehr, Food Depository executive director and CEO, and Sophie Milam, vice president of public policy, joined them when they met with Senator Holmes.
After the three advocates introduced themselves and shared briefly about the food pantry guests they serve, Milam explained that sometimes the barrier to a school participating in the federal Breakfast After the Bell program is a small purchase, such as a few trash cans. The bill would offer small grants to cover such costs, empowering more schools to implement the program and ensuring more students have access to a healthy morning meal.
When Senator Holmes agreed to support the bill as well as co-sponsor it, Debra Strickland’s face lit up. “We are so grateful,” she said and explained that in her role at Teamwork Englewood she sees the importance of breakfast for the young people they serve.
When the women regrouped in the hall after leaving Senator Holmes’ office, Edmonson-Woods said, “We did it!” Their first appointment of the day had proven successful and provided the confidence they then needed to meet with several more legislators, two more of whom agreed to co-sponsor one or both of the bills.
A week later, the Farm to Food Bank bill passed the Illinois Senate unanimously. It now goes to the Governor, and Food Depository advocates are already encouraging lawmakers to prioritize the bill in the state budget.
Good to Be Back
Lobby Day participant Michael DeMeyer never dreamed that a journey he started during the pandemic would lead him to Springfield. When the lines outside his local food pantry grew exponentially during the early months of COVID-19, DeMeyer felt inspired to volunteer, compelled to help his neighbors who were barely making ends meet.
That site, All Saints Food Pantry in Palatine, set a new site record in April, serving more than 2,000 families in one month for the first time. He had those families in mind when he met with lawmakers.
“Access to fresh produce and just more produce in general is imperative,” he said.
His time volunteering at All Saints Food Pantry has fueled his interest in the Farm to Food Bank bill. He has seen pantry guests’ desire for fresh produce, which can be cost prohibitive at grocery stores. But DeMeyer knows the challenges. The financial shortfall in Illinois is a real problem, he said.
“Support of these bills is one thing, getting them into the budget is another issue altogether. There’s only so much money to go around.” DeMeyer attended Lobby Day, his first ever, to encourage that much-needed financial support from his local legislators and to raise his voice for those in his community who deserve access to healthy food.
When the last appointment and hallway conversation of the day were done, first-timers like DeMeyer were grateful they had stepped out of their comfort zone to represent the needs and neighbors they serve every week. Lobby Day veterans were grateful to be back advocating for anti-hunger legislation after a three-year hiatus during the pandemic.
“It was great to have all these voices heard. This was sorely missing during COVID,” Kate Maehr said. She enjoyed seeing familiar faces in the work to end hunger as well as the enthusiasm of those new to the mission. “This reminded me of why we do this work. Best day ever.”
Learn more about the Food Depository’s advocacy work and how you can join us.