Service area shrinks, but Oak Park River Forest pantry demand remains high
Liz Parenti (left) of Oak Park and Jean Thayne of Elmwood Park work to organize canned goods Nov. 30 at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
What: Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry
Where: The pantry is located in the basement of First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., Oak Park
Hours: 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, 7-8:30 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month and 3:30-5 p.m. the second, third, fourth and fifth Wednesdays of the month
Who: The service area of the pantry includes these zip codes: 60130 (Forest Park); 60131 (Franklin Park and Schiller Park); 60171 (River Grove and Schiller Park); 60301, 60302, 60303, 60304 (Oak Park); 60305 (River Forest); 60402 (Berwyn, Stickney); 60707 (Elmwood Park); 60644 (Austin in Chicago); 60651 (Humboldt Park in Chicago)
Needs: Monetary donations and volunteers
For more information: Call (708) 434-0085 or visit www.oprffoodpantry.org
Updated: January 7, 2013 6:14AM
OAK PARK — When at the start of 2012 the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry reluctantly reduced its service area by 35 percent, it hoped to better match resources with demand.
But hunger can’t be downsized.
Though the pantry had eliminated 16 zip codes from its coverage area, reducing the service area to 12 zip codes has not resulted in a decrease in the number of people seeking help.
For example, from January to June, the pantry served 91 percent of the number of clients it served for the same period in 2011.
“The Saturday before Thanksgiving this year, we served 325 families,” Rita Kahn, the pantry’s development assistant, said. “The same date in 2011, we served 353 families. Given that last year we were serving 16 more zip codes, that 325 number is remarkably high.
“And we have had four months in 2012 where we have served more clients than in 2011. In September, we served 1,400 families. And we will likely serve more than 15,000 families in 2012.”
There are reasons demand continues to be high, said Kyle Vicens, benefits coordinator.
“For some people unemployment benefits have run out,” Vicens said. “Their savings are gone. And even for people who have jobs, wages are stagnant and the cost of living is up.”
Since the 1970s, the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry has provided emergency food assistance. “Emergency” is a key word. The pantry cannot provide its clients with a full-time source of food.
“Clients can only come to the pantry once per calendar month,” Kahn said. “The pantry provides about 11 days worth of food for the month. Families have to pay rent and other bills. What’s left? Food. We provide a way to bridge our clients to feed their families until they can pay their bills. Ninety percent of our clients come here for emergency help. And 60 percent of our clients are under age 18 or over age 60.”
While there is little chance demand will go down, resources are another matter. Since the food pantry can’t provide enough food to feed its clients daily, many clients also receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help, more commonly referred to as food stamps.
Current versions of the Farm Bill in the U.S. Congress would cut SNAP benefits by $16 billion over 10 years.
“Should SNAP benefits be cut, more people will come to the food pantry,’’ Vicens said.
The pantry also receives food from the US. Department of Agriculture. But because of the strong agriculture market, there is less surplus food for food pantries. Kahn said the pantry receives 60 percent fewer commodities from the USDA.
The Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry also purchases food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository at substantial discount.
“Our typical allotment of food would cost $83.69 retail,’’ Kahn said. “But our actual food costs average $8.55 per family.’’
This combination of rising costs and increased demand is forcing other food pantries to provide less food to their clients.
“Many other pantries have been forced to cut back on allotments and inclusion of fresh food due to increased demand,’’ Kahn said. “We believe this is another reason we are seeing increases in clients to Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry.
“The generous support of our local community has allowed the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry to maintain the amount of healthy food we are giving people.’’
That community support comes from local businesses that donate food and from individuals and community groups.
While the food pantry accepts food donations, it particularly welcomes monetary donations, since it can purchase almost $10 worth of food for $1.