Children comprise nearly half of all participants who receive federal food assistance and yet many more families with children are eligible for help who aren't getting it.
Childhood hunger was the focus of the second of eight hearings on hunger in Illinois presented by the Illinois Commission to End Hunger on Tuesday, August 9, at the United Methodist Church in Peoria.
Pride and stereotypes about people who receive SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or LINK cards (Illinois' name for this federal benefit) keep some people from getting the help they need.
"People say they are lazy, they are this, they are that, and I take personal offense from that because I was on SNAP benefits for my last two years of college," said Brittani Evans, SNAP outreach coordinator for the Peoria Area Foodbank in McLean County.
Evans testified at Tuesday's hearing. She had a son while in high school, graduated, got a job, bought a home and was then diagnosed with cervical cancer.
"For a while, I lived off of my retirement funds," Evans said. "When it came to my money running out of my bank, I was going to school full time and just trying to finish that and do it on my own. I was very, very hesitant to accept any kind of benefits because I never had any. I always took care of myself. It took my last two years of college before I actually accepted that help and started accepting food stamps. It was one of the best things I ever did. It was just one less bill to pay."
Now Evans helps other parents in need and the elderly, another underrepresented group, receive the benefits they are eligible for. Paperwork for SNAP benefits can be daunting, and by going out into the community, Evans has increased the number of people she has enrolled in the program. Her position is funded by a grant from the Heart of Illinois United Way and Feeding Illinois, a network of foodbanks operating in Illinois.
Tuesday's hearing was filled with example after example of people in Peoria and McLean counties finding resources to help hungry children.
For example, when federal funds for summer feeding programs for low-income school children were eliminated, the United Methodist Church in Peoria stepped up and is feeding 50 children from three local schools daily, according to Michelle Hayden of the Madison Avenue Kids Club Program.
"We don't just just serve them lunch but a nutritional meal," Hayden said. "The (Peoria Area) Foodbank has donated lots of food to us. Church people cook food and serve it and donate from their own pockets." Her program also provides the children with structured activities.
Linda Davis, Walmart community involvement coordinator, testified about a partnership between Walmart and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Peoria. Walmart employees deliver backpacks filled with healthy meals from area foodbanks to the Club on Fridays for the children to take home. According to an email from Amy Sickinger, program coordinator at the Club, that was read during the hearing:
"As members have been receiving consistent meals that are nutritionally balanced, they are able to focus and think more clearly. I have seen these children become much less irritable and able to think through things at a level they were not able to before. We have less fighting than ever before in our programming. It sounds so simple, but when someone is hungry, it is almost impossible to focus on anything other than the hunger pains they are experiencing."
Though very popular, backpack programs are one of the most expensive ways to feed children because, according to Barb Shreves, executive director of the Peoria Area Foodbank, the food contained in them is purchased food in small single-serving packages -- such as packaged tuna in a pouch and cartons of milk - all designed for children to open themselves.
Walmart doesn't donate the food for the backpacks; instead, according to Shreves, they donate thousands of pounds of canned goods and meat that isn't sold by the expiration date to area foodbanks for redistribution.
Marjorie LaFont, community leader and founding member of the Peoria Area Anti-Hunger Coalition, spoke of Tender Mercies, a project of the Midwest Foodbank in Bloomington with satellite offices in Peoria and Indianapolis. Tender Mercies is a meal in a bag that makes five servings of a complete nutritiously balanced meal of beans, rice and textured protein.
Though the private response to childhood hunger seemed strong in the Peoria area, all presenters stressed that federal assistance in the form of SNAP benefits and school feeding programs are vital to meeting increasing need.
Arthur Welch, moderator for the hearing summed it up this way:
"It's all about children. What I would recommend to the Commission is this: whoever makes the final presentation, choose someone among you who has passion for what we are talking about today ... You must feed hungry children. And in this state and in this country, there is no excuse for not feeding children. No excuse be it Republican, Democrat or Independent. There is no excuse in the United States of America that we shouldn't be taking care of our children and elderly better than we are doing."
The next hearing will take place on Monday, August 29, from noon until 3pm at The Wayne Township Pantry in West Chicago. The topic is "The Hidden Face of Hunger."
To hear the hearing on childhood hunger from the Peoria session, click on the listen button at the top of this story.