Last week, more than 60 Greater Chicago Food Depository staff, volunteers and member agency representatives traveled to Springfield for the two-day Second Annual Feeding Illinois Anti-Hunger Conference and Lobby Day. We were joined by hunger-relief supporters from all eight Feeding Illinois member food banks, as well as other food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters from across Illinois. Our charge was to learn more about legislative issues affecting hunger relief and raise awareness about the thousands of men, woman and children that struggle with hunger every day in our state.
To kick things off, participants gathered at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Hotel and Conference Center for a panel discussion covering the ongoing efforts of federal, state, private and community organizations to fight hunger, and what to expect during meetings with legislators the following day. Panelists included: Sarah Coffer, vice president of United Way of McLean County; Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park); Grace Hou, assistant secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services; Andy Kulczycki, director of Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County; Tracy Smith, state director of Feeding Illinois; and Jason Wetzel, director of public affairs and government relations of Walmart. The keynote was given by Jerry Stermer of the office of the governor and provided background on the state budget deficit and the financial challenges facing the state.
Below are just a few snippets from the panel discussion:
“Our staff was struck by how many clients mentioned how many phone calls, how many contacts they had to go through to get someone to answer their questions [in regards to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” Andy Kulczycki, director of the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County.
“Everyone is absolutely necessary to ending hunger. Community and state agencies can’t do it alone, legislators can’t do it alone, philanthropies can’t do it alone. But we can do it together. The question is whether or not we will,”Grace Hou, assistant secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
“There is an ongoing debate on what the overall size and scope of government should be. But if government is not instrumental in ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry, we’re doing it wrong,” Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park).
At the conclusion of the panel, participants chose break-out sessions to attend, each focusing on a specific topic. I stopped by the “Spotlight on Agencies,” led by Bob Koenegstein, director of the Chester Area Christian Food Pantry, a member of the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Bob shared a new initiative of his pantry, a monthly mobile “food fair.” The group, which included several other food pantries and food banks, discussed best practices of their mobile programs and there was a lively discussion on the logistics of allowing clients to choose their own items and bypass food they may not use or need. Several pantries shared that having a choice gave clients dignity and eliminated waste with everyone only taking the food they needed.
Next I joined a session covering SNAP and how agencies can connect their clients with these federal benefits. Pastor Sandra Gillespie of Food Depository member agency Chosen Tabernacle Food Pantry spoke about her experience with the Food Depository SNAP Outreach team that visits the pantry once a month to assist clients with the 11-page application form and to answer questions about the application process.
Pastor Gillespie explained that she decided to learn more about SNAP as a way to help her clients regain a sense of dignity. “[SNAP] is an opportunity [for the client] to do some things on their own. It allows them to go to the store and get what they need,” she said. “It’s about making a difference in the lives of our clients.”
To cap off the day, participants were welcomed to the governor’s mansion to recognize three hunger-relief advocates: the 2011 Legislator of the Year Sen. Harmon; Brenda Hanbury, retiring chief of the Bureau of Homeless Services and Supportive Housing, Illinois Department of Human Services; and Dennis Smith, retiring president and CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank. Watch their acceptance speeches below.