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Food pantries facing high demand for holidays

Stacks donated food wait be sorted shelved Lockport Fish Food Pantry. | Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun Times Media

Stacks of donated food wait to be sorted and shelved at the Lockport Fish Food Pantry. | Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun Times Media

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Updated: January 21, 2014 6:15AM

As quickly as people were bringing in boxes of donated food items through the back door of the Lockport FISH Food Pantry, clients were filling their shopping carts and carrying boxfuls out the front door to their cars.

Nearly 40 people came through on a recent Wednesday to shop off the shelves of the crowded pantry at 604 E. Ninth St., which serves 380 families, or 1,100 people each month.

Pantry coordinator Virginia Coffeen said she is “amazed” by the generosity of the Lockport and Homer Township communities that the pantry serves, “especially this year.”

“We have more people coming in for food this year than ever before,” said Coffeen, who has volunteered here for over 30 years. “We have plenty of food.”

That is not the case throughout the region, however. Pantry shelves are never quite as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard but are always in need of more food, said those who try to keep these shelves stocked.

While donors traditionally are more generous this time of year, the food and monetary donations to some pantries are not what they used to be.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Vicki Sline, director of the Rich Township Food Pantry. “Just because donations are down, I cannot say people are Bah-humbugging. Those who are working are still struggling or helping their family members and don’t have money to donate.”

“People would always bring in something during the holidays, but not this year. Every township pantry is in this predicament,” she said.

Sline has maxed out — serving 1,000 people each month.

Demand is typically up in the winter but also spiked a bit when there were cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food stamp benefits.

Demand at Frankfort Township’s pantry is currently at one of its highest levels — with 290 families per month, director Jodi Gallagher-Dilling said.

“Clients tell me their food stamps have taken a cut and there is more unemployment in the winter” she said. “The demand has not diminished. There are a lot of sad stories.”

Local Boy Scouts did a “tremendous job” of stocking Frankfort’s shelves in November, and folks are usually generous during the holidays, “but on Dec. 26 the door slams shut,” Gallagher-Dilling said. “What happens to the Christmas spirit after Christmas? You should come see me in July.”

Anna Scrementi at the Bloom Township food pantry said she saw a surge in new customers when SNAP benefits were cut, and also is seeing more these days as people sign up for holiday food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Demand is always heavier this time of year which tends to deplete our resources,” Scrementi said. “We get more unsolicited donations this time of year but right after Christmas the shelves go bare.”

“No pantry can sit back and say, ‘we’ve got this covered.’ It’s always a struggle,” she said. “The numbers are not going down.”

Pantry operators expect higher numbers and try to plan ahead for extra customers.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Pat Cork, a volunteer at the Plainfield food pantry, said she distributed 130 bags of groceries — “that’s a lot at one time,” she said. She is preparing to serve 300 families at Christmas, and “luckily” the supplies have met the demand.

“We did not — and will not — run out of food. We try to have food for as many people as possible,” she said, even though she has not noticed a tremendous amount of holiday donations this year.

The pantry is not taking new applicants, but new customers can come at the end of the distribution and see what is left.

Twice a month, Cork, Coffeen and others buy food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank to supplement donations.

While Scrementi said Bloom Township has a budget for its food pantry, others said they must raise their own donations of food and cash.

They all rely on the generosity of their communities and local grocery stores.

“I am so proud of our community,” Coffeen said of the effort to fill the Lockport FISH Pantry. “We have been able to keep up with a steady demand. We have never run out of food and we have never turned anyone away.”

Volunteer Joseph Vavrik brought in boxes from the local Jewel, while Deborah Rozanski filled the freezer with donated meats.

They allow clients to shop once a month on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, and every Tuesday is a “free food” day, with donations from local grocers.

Like most pantries, it serves only its local residents. Coffeen said they do ask customers to verify with a current utility bill that they are residents of Lockport or Homer Townships.

“People are always more generous at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but people are still hungry in July,” she said.

While they need food, the pantries also need cash to purchase toiletries and other necessities one cannot buy with food stamps, such as diapers, cleaning supplies, paper products and garbage bags.

Cork said she has one donor who has single-handedly kept the pantry supplied with toilet paper throughout the year.

“I bet he has donated $15,000 a year in toilet paper,” she said. “We are very fortunate.”

In addition to jars of pasta sauce, peanut butter, jelly, tuna and kids cereals, Gallagher-Dilling said she needs gift cards, which allow her to buy what the pantry needs or hand them out to families with children during the holidays.

She also networks with other pantries and service agencies to find out who is doing what and who needs what.

“It’s nice to combine forces and share. If I have an abundance of something, I will spread it around,” she said.

“We don’t compete with each other. We refer to each other,” Scrementi said. “We know our clients visit more than one pantry.”

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