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As donations dwindle so does the food on Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry’s shelves

Throughout the past few months, Kim Halper posted multiple pleas for donations to the Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry on the nonprofit’s social media pages, including pictures of nearly bare shelves normally stocked with goods.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on, even with the latest surge in cases slowing down, the pantry has seen more clientele needing help to afford food.

But donations of both food and cash to the Wonder Lake Neighbors pantry, located at the Nativity Lutheran Church at 3506 East Wonder Lake Road, have been sliced by at least 50% from pre-pandemic levels, Halper said this week.

The food pantry’s Facebook page has tried to make the problem known, describing the slowdown in donations as a “significant decrease” in late September.

Each time she posts, Halper said the pantry sees a small spike in donations, but the overall trend is concerning.

On Wednesday, the pantry made its latest appeal for more donations on its Facebook page, this time stating, “Our stock is getting quite low,” and requesting staples like canned fruits and vegetables, broths, condiments, canned tuna and chicken, ramen noodles, boxed potatoes and more.

The Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry was helping about 100 families each month recently, up from about 45 during the midsummer months, and more than before the pandemic, when between 50 and 75 families a month would come in for groceries.

The recent increase in need has persisted longer than the initial uptick seen as the pandemic was first spreading across the nation and unemployment levels set records as businesses stayed closed and workers stayed home.

“When the pandemic first hit, of course all the government officials were telling people go visit your local food pantry. We had a wave of increase in people coming to us for assistance. There was an increase in donations,” Halper said.

But need deflated a bit as federal stimulus payments of thousands of dollars made directly to many Americans flowed into local bank accounts, she said, and so did donations.

Now, need has picked back up and Halper expects it will only grow the rest of the year as the holidays approach, a time when the pantry sees more clients every year with or without a public health crisis.

“We’re not going to close our doors. But I don’t know. It just always works out, you know? I have faith. I don’t want to get religious, but it’s a God thing. When we have the need, we always miraculously seem to have the food to hand out,” said Halper, who has volunteered for 15 years with the Wonder Lake pantry.

She added she would compare the area’s increase in food insecurity during the pandemic to that seen during some stretches of the Great Recession following the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry volunteer Kathy Hayhurst, of Wonder Lake, fills plastic bags Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, with the food remaining on a table inside the pantry in the basement of Nativity Lutheran Church in Wonder Lake.

Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry volunteer Kathy Hayhurst, of Wonder Lake, fills plastic bags Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, with the food remaining on a table inside the pantry in the basement of Nativity Lutheran Church in Wonder Lake. (Matthew Apgar – mapgar@shawmedia.com/)

“We’ve seen times like this before,” she said, although she also said the pandemic has been the toughest economic period she’s seen for the food pantry.

The problem of dwindling supplies is not ubiquitous among McHenry County’s food pantries.

“We have the opposite of needing food,” Hebron Community Food Pantry Co-Chairman Bobette Von Bergen said in an email. “We get plenty of donations, but less and less clients in need.”

She said the expanded child tax credit consisting of $300 monthly payments per child distributed to many families across the country as part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden this year has kept more families afloat and fewer needing help from the pantry.

Plus, the startup of mobile and drive-thru food pantries in nearby towns like Harvard and Woodstock has given people facing food insecurity more options for help, with places like Brown Bear Daycare in Harvard offering contactless food pickup during distribution events amid the pandemic.

St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock also started offering a mobile market distribution for people needing food during the pandemic through a partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which helps distribute food to pantries and people throughout a 13-county area.

Charlie Meyer, 11, (left) loads carrots into a car's trunk with David Schneider (center) and Lt. Rob Owen, both of The Salvation Army, at a drive-thru food pantry distribution held weekly at the Brown Bear Daycare and Learning Center in Harvard during the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 2020.

Charlie Meyer, 11, (left) loads carrots into a car’s trunk with David Schneider (center) and Lt. Rob Owen, both of The Salvation Army, at a drive-thru food pantry distribution held weekly at the Brown Bear Daycare and Learning Center in Harvard during the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 2020. (Sam Lounsberry/)

The last mobile market at St. Ann’s, held last month, served 140 families, consisting of 374 adults and 115 children, the church told the Northwest Herald.

Another distribution by the mobile unit is set for 4 to 5:30 p.m. Monday at St. Ann’s, 510 W. South St., Woodstock, and the Northern Illinois Food Bank is also planning a mobile market from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Nov. 20 at St. John Lutheran Church, 6821 Main St. in Union.

“With all the mobile food trucks available each week in Harvard, Woodstock and other areas, plus the extra money given to the families with children from the government, $300 per child per month, there isn’t the need. We still have our older clients, and we will be giving out turkeys for Thanksgiving and hams for Christmas,” Von Bergen said.

On Thursday, she said the pantry may have to consider reducing its availability to open just once a month, down from the twice a month it hosts clients now, unless more clients started to show need.

Much of the Wonder Lake pantry’s clientele are seniors, Halper said, meaning the reconfigured child tax credits may not be helping them out as much as residents of the county’s other areas.

And while pantries in some pockets of the region like Hebron may be seeing less clients at their locations, food insecurity remains far greater than before the pandemic in 2021, according to the Northern Illinois Food Bank website.

In its service area, which stretches from Stephenson through Kankakee counties and excludes Cook County, just more than one in 12 people overall, or a total of 344,273 residents, and one in nine children, or 102,840 kids, have been projected to face hunger in 2021, according to food insecurity projections for the year published by the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

Those figures mark a 21% increase for the overall population expected to face hunger compared with pre-pandemic stats and a 28% rise in hungry children, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Organizations such as Trinity Lutheran Church in Harvard have tried to help fill the greater need in the region by starting small-scale pantries.

The church did so by converting what was once a Little Free Library book exchange outside its building into a spot to place food and grocery items that could be donated, taken and used by anyone who might need them during the pandemic. It has since started a second small food and grocery drop off and pickup box outside the fire station on Eastman Street.

Feminine hygiene products, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap have proved especially popular items at the smaller, outdoor pantries, said Barb Tody-Winslow, a member of Trinity Lutheran who keeps an eye on the boxes.

“You can go at any time of the day you want,” Tody-Winslow said. “If you feel you need something, but are still embarrassed by your situation in life, you can go in the middle of the night. It’s a little different than most pantries. We feel like we’re a supplement to those.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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