September is Hunger Action Month and West Chicago is getting involved by hosting a food drive to help benefit local pantries and the Northern Illinois Food Bank. The Food Bank provide nutritious food to more than 80 food pantries and feeding programs throughout DuPage County, including five food pantries in the City of West Chicago. These feeding programs assist over 66,000 hungry DuPage residents.
The City will be accepting non-perishable food donations to benefit West Chicago pantries from September 2 – 12, 2014. Food can be dropped off in the lobby of West Chicago City Hall, located at 475 Main Street from 8:00 – 4:30 p.m.
The Local Connection
With the recent economic downturn, food pantry use continues to rise. Ken Walker is the site coordinator for Neighborhood Food Pantries in West Chicago, and it’s his job to make sure that the shelves are stocked with a variety of healthy food choices and that the facility receives necessary upgrades to keep pace with the needs of its clients.
According to Walker, 560 families visit the site monthly. This equates to 4,000 people, of which 2,500 are children. Said Walker, “They keep saying that the economy is getting better, but we aren’t seeing it.”
Walker recalled how he learned of the food pantry and became involved in its mission. He retired from a career in the printing industry and, one day, an elderly neighbor asked him for a ride to the local food pantry while her car was in the shop for service. That visit made an immediate impact on him and he returned that same day to see how he could volunteer.
Thirteen years and two site locations later, Walker is still passionate about the people who walk through the door. “It’s not just a food pantry,” said Walker. “I probably know 70% of the clients by name. We’re a family.”
Along with Assistant Site Coordinator Nancy Andrews, together they are committed to creating an environment where clients feel welcome, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic circumstances. Said Andrews, “It’s not just a site, but more of a community. What we do here is lend an ear, in a non-judgmental way.”
Area businesses and organizations provide a variety of sources for food, funding and facility maintenance. Food donations continue to be delivered from various drop-off locations throughout the community and, during harvest season, many area residents are donating fresh produce from their gardens. The fresh produce, along with new food options, dovetail with the new Healthy West Chicago wellness initiative spearheaded by Mayor Ruben Pineda.
Although the pantry now offers a variety of healthier food options, such as brown rice and whole-grain pasta, Andrews admits that the change came with some resistance. Said Andrews, “At first, clients weren’t choosing the healthier options. We’ve found that they are willing to try the foods if we provide recipes or offer advice on how to cook the new items.”
Monetary donations are used to purchase food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. According to Walker, the pantry has eight times the purchase power through the Food Bank. Said Walker, “We can purchase eight boxes of cereal with a cash donation versus what it costs to purchase one box of cereal in a store.”
Facility maintenance is a continual work in progress. The building originally housed a church resale shop and, after sitting vacant for a number of years, needed repairs and appliances. Generous donations to get the site up and running included a new window, a walk-in freezer, a walk-in refrigerator and a furnace, air conditioner and duct work. Future wish-list items include a site expansion for restroom facilities, office space and a clothing closet.
Both Walker and Andrews credit the passion of the volunteers for the successful operation of the food pantry and they welcome new additions to the “community.” Anyone interested in volunteering can reach Andrews at (630) 605-0887 or can stop by the pantry, located behind Real Life Church, at 525 N. Neltnor Boulevard in West Chicago. Volunteer hours are flexible based on availability and areas of interest.