Demand steady at McHenry County food pantries despite rebounding economy

Feeding America: 9 percent of county residents thought to be food insecure

JOHNSBURG – The third Tuesday of each month at FISH of McHenry Food Pantry resembles career day.

For two hours, people filter in wearing uniforms, nurses scrubs or other work clothes to collect their monthly allotment of groceries from the food pantry.

Despite the apparent economic recovery, local food pantry leaders said they have not seen a reciprocal decrease in the number of people relying on food pantries and food banks. Instead, local food pantries are adjusting their schedules to serve working people who don’t have enough money for food.

“Maybe they are working, but they’re still not making enough to make ends meet,” said Pam Peters, one of three directors at FISH.

The Tuesday evening hours recently were added after some patrons said they couldn’t make it to the pantry between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. In total, FISH serves up to 650 families a month, Peters said, which is the largest number it has served in the 42 years it has been operating.

Peters said the food pantry fills a gap for many clients. A good portion of its clients are on food stamps that have recently been cut, Peters said. Others might have part-time jobs, or have taken pay or benefit cuts to keep their jobs, she said.

McHenry County has the third-lowest rate of food insecurity in the state, with 9 percent of residents – nearly 28,000 people – believed to be food insecure, or who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2015. The only counties with lower rates were Kendall, at 8.1 percent, and Kane, at 8.5 percent. The county with the highest rate of food insecurity was Alexander County, with 22.4 percent of residents. Overall, the state average was 13.6 percent, according to the data.

The steady flow of hungry clients at local food pantries comes despite signs the local economy is improving. The unemployment rate has dropped significantly in McHenry County since the economic downturn in 2008. McHenry County had a 5.5 percent unemployment rate in June, according to the latest data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. At its peak in January 2010, unemployment was at 12.6 percent.

That drop in unemployment, however, has not done much to curb the number of hungry people, Northern Illinois Food Bank Communications Director Donna Lake said. In fiscal 2015, which ended July 1, she said the food bank distributed the equivalent of 3.9 million meals to McHenry County residents through programs and partner pantries such as FISH. That’s a 17 percent increase over the previous year, Lake said.

“The fact is, it takes longer for folks who have been stretching their budgets to recover,” Lake said.

The Crystal Lake Food Pantry is on track to serve about 1,470 families in 2015, the same as it did in 2014 and a few dozen more than in 2013, Vice President Bill Eich said. However, clients have taken less and visited with less frequency, Eich said.

A recent survey food pantry officials conducted found some people found it difficult to come to the food pantry because they have changed jobs or had to take on multiple jobs, Eich said. Many times, these working families hover around the poverty line.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” Eich said. “When we started seeing the number of times they were coming in was dropping, we wanted to know why. ... It was a different dynamic than we were used to.”

Across the county at the Harvard Community Food Pantry, about 130 families come every week for food, Site Director Dave Decker said. He expected to see the number of families drop, but it has stayed the same as last year, he said.

What strikes Decker about that consistency is about 20 new families sign up every week, meaning 20 other families that were coming have stopped. The pantry has been able to keep up with the demand, thanks to its partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank and generous community donations, Decker said.

If all 400 families registered at the pantry needed food, Decker said pantry leaders would stretch their dollars to feed them.

“We’re a pretty resilient group here,” Decker said. “If we had more need, we would do what we needed to do to meet that.”

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