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DeKalb County Grow Mobile food pantry on wheels helping close 'meal gap'

DeKALB – After inspecting a tray of produce, Elijah Saucedo lifted a crate of tomatoes from a pile in ALDI’s back storage room and hauled it outside to load on a truck, saying his summer internship with the DeKalb County Community Gardens has been the most meaningful work experience of his life.

Saucedo, 22, a fifth-year senior at Northern Illinois University from East Moline, is in charge of product inventory, loading and driving the community gardens’ Grow Mobile. The Grow Mobile is a mobile food pantry that serves DeKalb County.

“I know it’s very needed, so it’s very fulfilling,” Saucedo said Thursday as he loaded the truck with meat, salmon, fresh produce, bread and other items to go to Barb Food Mart, and then the DeKalb County Health Department. The Grow Mobile, founded in June 2017, also holds weekly pantry hours 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays. Locations vary, and those interested can sign up for a text alert by texting @a34cg4 to 81010.

A report from the community gardens organization showed that from July 1, 2018, to June 30 the Grow Mobile served 12,000 households – and about 21,000 people – in the county. More than half were in the city of DeKalb, concentrated mostly in the Annie Glidden North neighborhood.

Another recent report by the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which partners with the Grow Mobile and other food pantries in the region, showed food insecurity has decreased in the county by about 6% since 2017 and 760 fewer people reported being food insecure in 2019.

Saucedo’s been busy the past few weeks with regular deliveries and pop-up pantries in addition to immediate relief efforts such as showing up after fires devastated families in both DeKalb and Sycamore and providing breakfast for them.

“I look forward to it,” Saucedo said. “It may not seem like a lot, but I can really tell we’re making a difference. It feels good. Even the smallest things can really make a difference. So I encourage everyone to get out and help the community.”

Tony Zeneli, store manager at ALDI in DeKalb, said donating unused perishable food is part of ALDI’s mission to reduce food waste.

“We’re real happy to help people who are in need,” Zeneli said. “Every morning when we come in, we go over the store and through the bread, meat, produce and anything that we see is coming out of date. If we don’t sell it, then we put it in the freezer to give.”

Feeding DeKalb, Sycamore fire victims

An average week for Saucedo means picking up extra products from local grocery stores such as ALDI, Jewel-Osco and Schnucks in DeKalb. He also collects freshly picked produce from the community gardens, then delivers it to pantries and apartment complexes in DeKalb, as well as Safe Passage and the DeKalb Senior Center.

The DeKalb County Community Gardens also will be collecting any donated proceeds from Wednesday’s planned DeKalb County Pride concert to unite DeKalb and Sycamore after a fiery July, when more than 200 residents were displaced because of fires in apartment buildings.

The Grow Mobile also will host another pop-up pantry Thursday at the Family Service Agency 14 Health Service Drive, DeKalb, to continue relief efforts for fire victims.

“While many of the fire survivors have begun to rebuild their lives, DCCG and other local human service organizations know this process can be complicated, frustrating, disheartening and lengthy,” read a statement issued by the DCCG on Thursday. “DCCG along with others are committed to assisting our neighbors throughout this process by continuing to coordinate food drops for those in need while they get back on their feet.”

Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, oversees the Northern Illinois Food Bank and 300 others across the country and conducts an annual study to look at what is known as the “meal gap.” The term refers to whether individuals living in certain areas and under economic hardship have fair access to nutritional, affordable food. Federal and state assistance programs and food gaps then work together to find ways to fill that gap. It reports 12.6% of DeKalb County has indicated being food insecure.

Dan Kenney, founder of the DeKalb County Community Gardens, said he thinks that percentage will decrease.

Kenney said the number of people served by the Grow Mobile is increasing because word is spreading, and the community gardens is nearing another significant milestone.

“Since we have had the mobile pantry, we have distributed more than 250,000 pounds of food to food-insecure individuals and families in DeKalb County,” Kenney said.

He expects that number to reach half-a-million pounds soon.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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