Danahey on the Loose at Northern Illinois Food Bank

For a guy like me, a recent visit to Northern Illinois Food Bank’s base of operations in Geneva was a humbling and inspiring experience.

See, I’ve been lucky enough to attend as many as six Thanksgiving dinners in any one year. Watching my weight (sort of) I’ll probably cut back to two or three this time, if just to keep a tradition alive.

I’m grateful to have such nice friends who will feed me. I’m grateful I’ve never had to do without a meal.

Northern Illinois Food Bank is doing its part to make sure nobody in a large part of this state has to go hungry, either.

The Geneva warehouse and HQ for Northern Illinois Food Bank holds skids and shelves filled with donated products.

To that end, as it is November, the nonprofit organization, which is one of the largest food bank’s in Feeding America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks, is already busy putting together about 33,000 holiday meal boxes of food to be given out for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

They’ll be distributed, along with frozen turkeys, through an extensive network of food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, youth and senior centers across 13 counties outside of Chicago and Cook County with which Northern Illinois Food Bank works.

Of course, people find themselves in need of food in all seasons, for all sorts of reasons. According to its 2019 fiscal year report, the Northern Illinois Food Bank distributed the food equivalent of 69 million meals to more than a half-million people.

A sourced list the nonprofit group Do Something has on its website notes that 40 million people in this country don’t have enough to eat, and 15 million families at one time or another don’t have enough to feed their members.

Those folks include people who lost their jobs and are trying to keep up on their bills, mortgages, health insurance and other expenses of having a family; senior citizens making a go of it on Social Security, small pensions, little savings and mounting medical expenses; college students with strained resources; and folks working multiple jobs that pay meager wages.

At the same time, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, about 40 percent of edible food in America winds up being wasted. That’s 72 billion tons, much of it going into landfills.

It’s thrown out by consumers and restaurants, left unsold in stores, or not brought to market, sometimes because it’s not picture-perfect enough for fussy shoppers.

So Northern Illinois Food Bank – like other food banks that are part of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization – works with manufacturers, retailers and farmers in their effort to feed neighbors in need.

Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteers put the nonprofit’s labels on cans donated by businesses in cases where the brand label has been damaged on attached incorrectly.

Retail Recovery Specialist Tia Aagesen and Communications Manager Elizabeth Gartman say those relationships are such that every dollar donated to Northern Illinois Food Bank results in the organization being able to obtain what would amount to $8 worth of food you or I would be able to purchase at a grocery store.

The organization also has some innovative programs to get food to the people who need it.

In addition to its Geneva site, Northern Illinois Food Bank maintains warehouse centers in Joliet, Park City and Rockford, where the building also houses its Winnebago Community Market food pantry.

It had two beverage trucks converted into mobile pantries, which make scheduled stops throughout the Northern Illinois Food Bank service area. The routes are setup to reach people who might not be able to get to a local food pantry during its operating hours, Ages said.

This year in DeKalb, Lake County, and now Rockford, Northern Illinois Food Bank launched My Pantry Express, by which people can place their orders online and pick them up at set times and locations, including some Walmart and school parking lots.

Gartman said that this online offering came about in part because most all of the residents in its service area have access of one sort or another to the Internet. It also helps reach people who might otherwise feel embarrassed about going to a food pantry, she said.

“Eventually, the Food Bank hopes to develop an even more mobile-friendly technology solution, like an app, to make My Pantry Express even more accessible to folks who need help putting food on the table for themselves and their families,” Gartman said.

Northern Illinois Food Bank also stresses nutrition. It works Chef Jen Lamplough on offering cooking demonstrations and healthy recipes, which are available on the food bank’s website.

The organization tries to make as much fresh produce as possible available to its clients. It also offers milk and meat.

Aagesen pointed out a room in the big Geneva warehouse that was recently converted into a bulk meat processing room. The purpose is that a good many corporate donations include whole chickens and large cuts of meat.

The meat packing room at Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva allows the nonprofit to repackage larger cuts into smaller, more manageable quantities for food pantries and families alike.

With this special room, Northern Illinois Food Bank will be able to accept more of these donations, then portion and repack them into smaller, more manageable quantities for food pantries and families alike, she said.

The Food Bank even has its own label for some of the canned goods it distributes. Aagesen explained it goes on cans that businesses have donated where the original labels may have been damaged or put on incorrectly. 

Attaching those labels, food sorting and packing, and serving neighbors directly at the Winnebago Community Market, Mobile Pantries or My Pantry Express distributions are some of the ways you can volunteer with Northern Illinois Food Bank, as more than 24,000 people do each year.

To think, this all started 37 years ago in DuPage County, in relatively affluent Wheaton, with Sister Rosemarie Burian. The story goes Sister Rosemarie had a vision while meditating one day that she should start a food bank. She believed everyone should have access to healthy food.
As an Irish American, I remember that many of our ancestors wound up in the United States because of the Great Famine. In case you don’t know, this catastrophe was largely avoidable.
Poor tenant farmers in Ireland lived on a diet consisting mainly of potatoes. A blight infected the potatoes.
There was plenty of other food being grown or raised in Ireland, but it went to landlords and over to England, which ruled Ireland. While there were relief efforts, English prejudice, bad public policy and a belief that the “lazy” poor deserved their fate played roles in this tragedy.
Historians say more than a half million people were evicted, another 1 million or more died from starvation or related diseases, and more than 2 million fled Ireland from roughly 1845 – 1850.
The Great Famine changed the face of Ireland, and through mass emigration shaped other nations, especially the United States.
Yes, the Irish scattering contributed to the world’s culture. Yet, hunger remains a global issue.
With that in mind, by the power granted to me by the internet, I declare Sister Rosemarie Burian – who passed away in September at the age of 83 – an honorary Irish.
As Irish and Americans we must never forget. Not forgetting means following the example of the dearly departed Sister.
Amen to that.
Northern Illinois Food Bank has two converted vehicles which bring groceries to scheduled stops in its service area.