Every day, over 800,000 people wake up hungry in the Chicago area, including one out of five children. And rather than lessening, the need is intensifying, with demand at one local food bank up 68% over the last four years.
The people who manage food banks have seen a change in those seeking their help. While the stereotype is that people who use food banks are homeless or jobless, in fact the food is provided to a broader range of people than ever, including the working poor, single-parent families, and the newly unemployed. Kate Maehr, the CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository says, “Increasingly, we are serving people who have done everything right in their lives, and yet find themselves in moments of such extreme need, they literally don’t have food to put on the table for their children.”
For almost 35 years, the Food Depository has been distributing food to hungry families and children of Cook County. The food bank distributes its food through a network of 650 programs—including 400 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters—to 678,000 adults and children in Cook County every year. Last year, for example, the Food Depository distributed 64 million pounds of groceries and fresh produce, dairy products and meat—the equivalent of 134,800 meals every day.
Many of the Food Depository’s programs focus on children, the beneficiaries of the food bank’s most innovative programs. Nourish for Knowledge provides backpacks of shelf-stable food and produce that go home with students so there’s food available on the weekends. Healthy Kids Markets, food pantries in schools, give students bags of fresh produce when they leave at the end of the day. And the Summer Lunch Bus provides food for kids who can’t take advantage of the school breakfast and lunch programs once the school year ends.
Bank of America has supported the Food Depository for over 13 years, much of its funding going to support programs for children. According to Maehr, “The financial support we receive from the bank has helped us build the strongest response to childhood hunger we’ve ever had.”
Bank of America executives also serve on their board, helping the organization grow strategically. Peter Johnson, a managing director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has been a board member for the past two years, chairing the finance committee and helping them think about their business in new ways. Says Johnson, “There’s a very strong link between Bank of America and the Food Depository; it’s a well-established effort. We’ve been giving grants for a long time. But also critically important are the volunteer efforts, which generate internal support and get employees directly involved in events and fundraising efforts.” Employees from the bank volunteer hundreds of hours a year, sorting and packing food in the warehouse, organizing food drives, and working in community soup kitchens and food pantries.
Betsy Backes is a Bank of America employee who volunteers at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, which serves clients on the far west side of Chicago and the near Western suburbs. She said, “When I looked at the number of people who are in food distress in this community in Chicago, I was shocked. It’s a newly marginalized middle-class. All of a sudden these are people who need to take when they’re used to giving, and it’s incredibly difficult for them. But once a month we can give them a week’s worth of groceries. We can help them get a SNAP card. We can help their children get healthcare coverage. We have what it takes to help them.”
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