A thought for food

Food-insecure neighbors find nourishment at local pantries

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 31 percent of the country's food supply is thrown away. While the majority of that waste is from homes, one-third is from the retail sector.

Sadly, food waste is considered the single largest component of municipal landfills. But even more agonizing is wondering how much of a dent that food, if rescued, could make in helping the millions of Americans who struggle with hunger.

September is Hunger Action Month, and HCS Family Services in Hinsdale is taking action, making sure rescued food is a primary component of the roughly 600,000 pounds of food it distributes annually through its food pantries in Hinsdale's Memorial Hall and at Anne M. Jeans Elementary School in Willowbrook.

"Close to 70 percent of that food is rescued food," said Stan Cook, executive director of the Hinsdale-based agency. "We provide a real role in helping to rescue food that would otherwise be

thrown into dumpsters."

DuPage County has the second highest hungry population in the state of Illinois, and HCS Family Services has developed a broad network of food rescue partnerships with different retailers, particularly large chain stores like Jewel, Mariano's, Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market. In collaboration with Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, HCS was recently able to add the retailers Aldi, Costco and Brookhaven to that group.

Village residents are likely familiar with the red HCS delivery truck criss-crossing the community, retrieving the food.

"It drives around five days a week to pick up food, and we've got about nine or 10 volunteers that typically drive that truck," Cook said.

Typically the food is something that is nearing expiration, he said, or items the merchant has decided for some reason to discontinue carrying.

"But it's all perfectly good food," he stressed. "So we can bring it in because we're open four times every week."

Scott Brechtel, manager of the Hinsdale pantry, said the drivers record their activity.

"They leave the store a receipt for how many boxes they've picked up so the store can get credit," Brechtel said. "And then we also key those receipts into Northern Illinois Food Bank so the food bank can report to their corporate."

Nancy LaBreacht, marketing specialist at Whole Foods Market, said her company values responding to the social need.

"Since Whole Foods Market first opened our doors 40 years ago, caring for our environment has been a key part of our core purpose and values," LaBreacht said. "We're proud of our partnership with HCS Family Services. Together, we're bringing perishable and nonperishable food to those in need, and diverting food from the landfill."

Businesses also host food drives or fundraisers to benefit the pantries.

"We're happy to have the food rescue, but then retailers find different ways to contribute and support us," Cook said.

Homeowners' gardens and local dairies are also vital sources of a pantry's bounty.

"We're always looking for ways to have more healthy, nutritious options for our guests. So we have a produce section, we have a dairy section, and we've started offering milk and eggs to every visitor at every visit," Cook said. "A lot of those things have a limited shelf life, but we can bring it here and distribute it."

The 150 families coming through the two pantries represent 400 to 500 people in need of food. And Cook said pantry visits are up about 30 percent over the last six months.

"It's been increasingly difficult for people to sign up for some of those programs. So we provide helpful access to food for people that may not be able to get into a government program," he said.

Even though Anne M. Jeans closed for the summer, the pantry did not, with so many children in that community depending on the breakfast and lunch programs during the school year.

Above all, Cook said, the volunteers want pantry patrons to feel welcome.

"We want to make sure that the guests who come to our pantry are treated with care and compassion," he said. "We can offer food, but we can also offer emotional reassurance to these people."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean