After food stamps were cut at the national level last fall and with unemployment benefits losing their federal extension in January, the need for food assistance is on the rise in Grundy County.
“Anytime unemployment extensions are lost, we see a rise in our pantry,” said Denise Gaska, executive director at We Care of Grundy County. “Our pantry numbers are impacted by the unemployment figures.”
The National Employment Law Project said in a news release this week that about 1 million children are living in homes that lost income because of the cutoff, and the number of long-term unemployed Americans without access to jobless aid hit the 2 million mark this week as a result of Congress’ failure to reauthorize the emergency unemployment insurance program.
Northern Illinois Food Bank Communications Director Donna Lake said the agency’s network partners are telling them they are seeing an increase in need.
Agencies such as NIFB and We Care depend on public and private donations to fill the shelves to allow people to get food to help stretch their food budget.
“We’re going to have to work harder,” Lake said. “Government commodities are decreasing and we can’t rely on any one source. Anytime a budget is stretched, you have to make tough choices.”
Morris residents who meet income guidelines are eligible to go to We Care’s pantry once a month to fill up on staples such as canned fruit, vegetables, cereal, peanut butter, canned soups and meats, pasta and household items to help them make ends meet.
Any resident of Grundy County who is in need of help with food is invited to attend the monthly mobile food pantry, which is sponsored by an area business or individual, and delivered by NIFB in a truck to a local designation chosen by We Care.
“The mobile food pantry has no financial requirements, the only thing people need is proof of residency and an ID,” Gaska said. “They can use a recent utility bill or insurance card, something that has a Grundy County address on it.”
Lake said the trucks are stocked to serve up to 300 families and create an additional safety net for people whose budget, for whatever reason, is stretched thin.
The trucks are stocked with meat items, bread and fresh produce, and supplemented with shelf stable items.
“The weather has been tough this year,” Lake said. “Our office has only closed one day, but it has been a challenge with road conditions and the cold.”
We Care had to cancel the December food truck because the weather, and the January food truck had to be unloaded into First Christian Church to be passed out to those in attendance because of the extreme cold.
“We know people feel the pinch if we don’t have it so we try not to let weather impact delivery,” Gaska said.
NIFB serves 13 counties, including Grundy County, and 77 percent of the food it distributes is donated by manufacturers and retailers. It also has instituted a Retail Pick Up program, which allows pantries to pick up from their local retailers directly.
Gaska said the food trucks are sponsored generally by businesses, community groups and churches, and the cost to the sponsor is $1,000.
“The program has grown and I never have trouble filling the spots for the mobile pantry,” Gaska said. “We often have a year in advance booked.”
However, We Care also looks for sponsors to help fill the pantry once a month with items bought from NIFB.
When the pantry is full, Gaska is able to order food items needed to add to local donations, and the order can change month to month based on that need.
Sponsors for the Fill the Pantry program are asked to donate $750 toward the cost of approximately $1,300 to $1,500 We Care spends monthly on the food items, as well as provide eight to 10 individuals to help stock when the delivery is made.
“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the people,” Gaska said.