Local food bank faces challenges
Inflation and food-supply issues hit hardest among our community's poor and needy. We have a chance to help through one of our Jeremiah Fund grant recipients, the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Jim Killam
April 20, 2022

If you’ve shopped for groceries in the past six months, you’ve noticed occasional empty shelves, with staples like bread, dairy and meat in short supply. What you might not realize is that those shortages have a ripple effect, and it’s hitting needy families especially hard.

Northern Illinois Food Bank is a past recipient of a Jeremiah Fund Grant from First Free. Rockford is one of NIFB’s four locations, with a center at 765 Research Parkway (off Kishwaukee Street just south of Bypass 20). Courtney Oakes, senior program manager, said food and gas price spikes are combining with driver shortages and supply-chain issues common during the pandemic. The result: less food to feed the needy.

“If you see that the shelves are empty at your grocery store, that means we definitely did not receive a donation of that item,” she said.

Typically, grocery stores and food processing companies would regularly supply pantries with products nearing their expiration dates but still good. When shortages mean those types of donations decrease, pantries have to buy more food to serve needy families and individuals.

And prices are high. Before the pandemic, food banks were buying produce for about 29 cents a pound, Courtney said. Now it’s 40 cents a pound—37 percent higher. Potatoes have risen significantly. So have apples.

“Those seem like small things, but those are staples that we typically have in this region,” Courtney said. “And we also share those staples with other food banks. So they are seeing less from us, we are seeing less from them. We are purchasing less than we would like to. Even if we budget for it, it doesn’t mean that the product is there, and it doesn’t mean that the shipment isn’t three weeks out and double the cost.”

The most critical shortage and price spikes again reflect what grocery stores have been running out of: raw, frozen protein, like poultry and beef.

“We are seeing little to no donations of that at all,” she said, “because things are selling at the stores and there isn’t much to donate. Plus, with driver shortages they are not getting as many shipments in. And so their food is flying off the shelves before they can even think of donating things.”

The need grows

With many COVID-relief programs expiring this month, some families who receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) are finding themselves with up to $100 less per month to spend on groceries. That means pantries are busier. NIFB’s weekly community market on Thursdays and Fridays used to serve, on average, 250 to 300 households. Two weeks ago, they served 500.

Part of that is more needy families, and part is that families are having to shop several pantries to find what they need. Most area pantries are connected to NIFB, which provides food through a network of 900 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, youth and senior centers, and has a number of other direct distribution programs.

Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteer Laura Kohler packs cans of spaghetti sauce into boxes of assorted food that will be given at area food distribution sites. The packing shift takes place in the same room where the food bank hosts its Winnebago Community Market on Thursdays and Fridays.

How First Free can help

There are two ways our church family can help. One is to donate. Pantries receive larger food donations from stories and producers, but individuals or churches can donate food, too. An even better help is when people donate money, because it helps NIFB bulk food buyers offset the impact of inflation and keep shelves stocked. Find donation information here.

The second big need is volunteers, especially during community shopping times on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 7 p.m. Even when NIFB has enough food on those days, they don’t have enough volunteers to keep shelves stocked. “So people panic and think we are out of food,” Courtney said, “but really it’s just that we can’t get it out fast enough.”

Other volunteer opportunities exist every week, including Saturdays. This is a great chance for life groups, adult communities, youth groups or individuals to minister to our community.

“Having a group that could make a commitment to, say, once a month would be amazing,” Courtney said.

First Free Rockford’s Jeremiah Fund focuses on engaging our congregation to seek the welfare of the city of Rockford. Nominations are encouraged, and grants are distributed through members of our church who actively serve local non-profit organizations. Full guidelines can be found here.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


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