Illinois Valley food pantries: ‘We’re starting to feel the hurt’

Food pantries grapple with inflation, shrinking government aid

The Illinois Valley Food Pantry in La Salle set a bad record last month — the kind they prayed would never happen — when 18 new families asked for help. That’s 18 clients who never needed food assistance before.

And in case Executive Director Mary Jo Credi needed more proof times are bad, even the U.S. government can’t help much right now. The food pantry in La Salle usually can bank on Uncle Sam to deliver meat, but a tandem of inflation and fuel costs have scaled back federal aid.

“We’re not getting a lot of meat from the government,” Credi said, “and we’re starting to feel the hurt.”

Food pantries in the Illinois Valley are asking local donors for cash — pantries can buy from food banks more cheaply than you can at the store — because the volume of people in need is climbing at the same time government aid is falling off.

“We were getting government food but that has slowed down and now we have to buy food,” said Tracy Cooper, director of the Mendota Area Christian Food Pantry.

Cooper also reports rising numbers of clients — about where the numbers were before the pandemic — with a 20% increase in new clients.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s people who’ve never had to use a food pantry before,” Cooper said. “We’re seeing so many people who’ve never used us in the past and that’s kind of scary.”

“Our numbers are up,” said Bertie Beckman, president of Streatorland Community Food Pantry. “We have at least three new families coming in each day we’re open.”

For both La Salle and Mendota, the big need is children’s meals that can be heated with a microwave rather than a stove. Heat-and-eat breakfast sandwiches, French toast sticks and Pop Tarts are needed because a hungry child’s needs are greater during summer than during the school year when free and subsidized lunches and breakfasts are available.

One reason demand has risen is COVID-19 relief efforts have lapsed, taking away a security net for many families.

Marissa Vicich, executive director of the Community Food Basket in Ottawa, said federal stimulus dollars and other pandemic relief programs kept many families afloat through the end of last year.

“We are basically up about 50% over last year,” Vicich said. “In 2021, demand was down a little because all the government aid programs were working. But now demand is back to normal or above.”

Mike Paulsen, a volunteer at Western Bureau County Food Pantry, reported the same trend. COVID-19 relief programs had slashed his numbers from 140 families in need to 40. Since then, however, the number has soared to 86 and climbing.

Many clients, he said, are first-timers who once could get by but now need help with costs soaring. Paulsen said he had an elderly, widowed Social Security recipient in tears because he’d never asked for a handout in his life — until now.

“You can’t believe how many people who are in this position,” Paulsen said.

Demand has risen by about one-fifth at the Hall Township Food Pantry in Spring Valley, where executive director Jan Martin reports 1,000 clients and 295 families in need, up 18% and 22%, respectively, from this time last year.

“It’s been busy,” Martin said. “But we’re getting by. There’s less food from the food banks because of supply and demand but our community is always eager to help out.”

Martin agreed government aid is wanting, not only for food pantries but for families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. One Hall client is a mother of four who reported a $99 per month benefit — a figure that barely covers a lone trip to the supermarket.