Illinois Valley food pantries brace for sharp demand for Christmas food help

‘It’s kind of disheartening,’ police chief says of the demand seen at Thanksgiving

Jim Pienta volunteer at the Hall Township Food Pantry fills a clients car with food on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 in Spring Valley.

The line of cars was so long and unwieldy that the Illinois Valley Food Pantry asked La Salle police to send over a patrol officer to direct traffic.

La Salle Police Chief Mike Smudzinski said his heart sunk at the task: The cars were lined up for the pantry’s holiday distribution, which was conducted the week before Thanksgiving. For Smudzinski, a 28-year veteran, this was an unhappy first.

“It’s kind of disheartening to see something like that,” Smudzinski said. “It goes to show there’s a lot more needy people than we realized.”

MaryJo Credi executive director of the Illinois Food Pantry and April Linkowski sort food for clients at the Illinois Valley Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 in La Salle.

Christmas is shaping up to be worse. Thanks mainly to inflation – although the lifting of pandemic relief programs has not helped – food pantries across the Illinois Valley are bracing for unprecedented demand for holiday food assistance.

Marissa Vicich, executive director of Community Food Basket in Ottawa, said she thinks this Christmas will see food assistance increase by half over last year – and maybe double. Last year, Vicich had 443 seeking help and she’s already inching toward 800.

“The prices at the grocery store have driven people into our line,” Vicich said, “but there aren’t as many programs to help people as there were last year, either.”

And the food pantries are by no means immune from inflation.

“We are spending more and more every single month,” said Mike Paulsen, food manager of the Western Bureau County Food Pantry in Sheffield. “Our expenses have gone up a lot.”

A long line of cars wait for food from the Illinois Valley Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022 in La Salle.

At the Mendota Christian Food Pantry, Executive Director Tracy Cooper said the pantry’s food costs have about tripled in the past 12 months.

“If that’s happening here, imagine what the average family is going through,” she said.

Cooper said she thinks new clients will seek help as soaring energy costs push local households to the brink.

“I’m seeing more and more new families for weekly distributions – as many as five per distribution – and if you add that up, that’s 40 new clients a month. That’s a big jump.

“And I really, truly expect it to get worse over the winter months.”

Volunteer Joe Nagle unloads a cart of food for a client on at the Hall Township Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 in Spring Valley.

In all cases, food pantries are seeking monetary assistance from donors who are in a position to give. The pantries can buy food more cheaply from food banks than their donors can from the store.

Nevertheless, supply chain problems are causing shortages of specific items. Vicich, for example, needs paper products and toothbrushes. Cooper needs sugar-free foods and dairy products. Paulsen needs meat, particularly holiday hams. The Bureau County Food Pantry, which expects 15% to 20% more need, could use cereals, canned fruit and holiday side dishes such as instant mashed potatoes.

At the Illinois Valley Food Pantry in La Salle, Executive Director Mary Jo Credi has nonperishable foods –thanks to a drive by the Illinois Valley Auto Group – but badly needs fresh food to meet holiday demand, which is expected to jump 15% over last year.

“Meat, eggs and other perishable foods we are really having a tough time with,” Credi said. “The amount of food we get from the government has dropped considerably.”

Volunteers gather food for clients at the Hall Township Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 in Spring Valley.

And at the Hall Township Food Pantry in Spring Valley, the No. 1 needed item is eggs. An avian flu that wiped out turkeys – holiday birds surged in cost, when you could find them – also took a toll on egg-laying chickens, which sent egg supplies tumbling and prices soaring.

Jan Martin, executive director, said she ordered eggs for her clients – she’ll need 300 dozen before Christmas – and got zero. The vendors told Martin that she might get some around Dec. 26, if then.

“I may have to go without giving eggs,” Martin said, “and that will be a first.”

Martin said she’s seen “a steady increase” each week in the number of clients seeking help. She expects Christmas demand will have climbed by 20% over last year but said she is equally troubled by the volume of new faces.

“The number of new families is just amazing,” she said, “and it’s larger families.”

A line of food extends the length of the Illinois Valley Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 in La Salle.