Deerfield area food pantries work to meet demand
Olga Aguilar (from left), Sandy Washburn and Sam Piro harvest a bounty of vegetables Sept. 15 in the Moraine Township Food Pantry's garden at Woodridge Park. | Jerry Daliege~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 20, 2012 7:27AM
DEERFIELD — As lines continue to grow, local food pantries continue to keep their shelves stocked.
Over the past two years, West Deerfield Township Supervisor Julie Morrison has reported a steady rise in the number of people who rely on the township food pantry, especially families with kids.
“No one thinks there is any need in Deerfield,” she said. “But people are getting a lot of assistance.”
Morrison’s observations reflect the findings in a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released this month that found the number of people unable to put food on their tables without assistance is growing.
According to the study, 14.9 percent, or 17.9 million households across the country last year did not have consistent access to food. Five years ago, the numbers were 11.1 percent, or 13 million.
Of those, 36 percent are households in which one or more people are working, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that works to ease hunger in America through food banks across the country, including the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Seeking to raise awareness, Feeding America has designated September as National Hunger Action Month.
Morrison suspects job loss and underemployment may have caused the uptick in new faces.
She said some people who previously held mid-level management jobs are now working fewer hours in retail, and thus, struggling to make ends meet.
Yet parents are willing to make sacrifices to call Deerfield home and send their kids to its public schools, Morrison said. Cash-strapped seniors who have resided in the area for years also may be reluctant to leave.
“People really stretch every dime they have to live in Deerfield,” Morrison said.
She said approximately 200 people, including 26 families, benefit from the pantry on a monthly basis.
Moraine Township, which serves the east side of Deerfield but primarily encompasses Highland Park and Highwood, has a pantry, too, that assists up to 100 families a month, reported supervisor Mari Barnes.
The size of a family ranges from one individual to six, she said.
People in need are referred to the township pantries by schools, social workers, faith-based organizations, and the police department.
To sign up, residents must declare their income for the past 30 days. Township employees then meet one-on-one with residents to see whether there are additional resources available to them.
“Usually when people need food they need other things as well,” Morrison said.
Asking for assistance can be difficult and feel stigmatizing for many of the town’s residents, she said, so the service is rarely abused. Volunteers pack the free groceries in advance of a person’s arrival to simplify the service.
“It’s very discreet,” Morrison said. “They’re in and out.”
Food donations come from individuals, as well as local businesses. Morrison said the community has been generous in its contributions.
“We do the best we can with whatever is donated that day,” she said.
Families walk away with four or five bags of food, depending on the number of kids and their ages. People with diet restrictions, such as those with diabetes or gluten intolerance, get specially packed groceries, Morrison said.
The pantry also gives grocery-store gift cards for perishable items, like milk and cheese.
The card is a way to empower people down on their luck to make their own choices, Morrison said.
“It’s not a lot of money but it’s something,” she said.
Moraine Township hosts two seasonal drives a year to stock its shelves. It also purchases food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Since 2006, Moraine also has grown its own produce.
The Park District of Highland Park has designated a space in Woodridge Park as the township’s Pantry Plants Garden. Last year, families recruited by the Lake County Health Department’s North Shore Clinic in Highland Park began caring for plots of their own.
“We are overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis, and other healthy goodies,” Barnes said.
People can pick-up groceries from the Moraine Township pantry once a month, on Tuesdays or Thursdays.
Barnes said she hasn’t noticed a rise in food-assistance recipients in recent years as the pantry mostly serves chronically poor populations. People in emergency situations sometimes use the pantry to help “get over the hump,” she added.
-- Staff writer Cathryn Gran contributed to this report.