The holiday season is nearly over, but DuPage County food pantries are hoping people don't abandon the gift-giving spirit just yet.
"People don't just eat at Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Charles McLimans, executive director of Naperville-based Loaves and Fishes Community Pantry. "I'm very worried about what is going to happen in January and February, which are traditionally our down months."
Thanks to holiday season cash donations and food drives, Loaves and Fishes' shelves currently are stocked. But McLimans is concerned about a potentially big drop-off in donations just as demand increases amid difficult economic times.
McLimans said Loaves and Fishes experienced a 140 percent increase of first-time Naperville clients this November compared to the same time last year. He said overall enrollment in Loaves and Fishes' programs is up 59 percent from 2007 for the first half of its fiscal year (which started July 1).
The countywide food bank operated through the People's Resource Center in Wheaton also has seen an uptick in demand. Just since the summer of 2008, development director Karen Hill says the center has experienced a 16 percent increase in food bank clients.
"The dilemma we see in DuPage County is that even though it has a huge amount of wealth, there are also a number of people living in poverty," said H. Dennis Smith, executive director and chief executive officer of the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Based upon the bank's 2008 annual report, there are an estimated 55,960 DuPage residents living at or below the 2008 federal poverty level at $21,200 for a family of four. That's less than half the estimated living wage of $46,887 for a DuPage County family of four.
Along with job losses, Smith points out that many families also are being hit with growing food prices and transportation costs - something many food pantries are also faced with.
"One of the things that hit us particularly hard this past summer was fuel prices," Smith said, noting how expensive it became to distribute food to its 520 member agencies across 13 Illinois counties.
And as grateful as Smith is about food drive donations, he says they typically only make up about 2 percent of the total food distributed by his nonprofit organization.
"There are a lot of items we don't get in food drives that we have to buy," said McLimans of Loaves and Fishes, stressing the need for financial contributions on top of food donations.
Hill of People's Resource Center also hopes more people will contribute end-of-year donations as a tax write-off to help out.
"A lot of our regular donors are not able to donate at the same levels they used to," Hill said.
"Until the economy starts to rebound with more job creation, people are going to need food assistance," Smith said. "Don't forget that people are going to continue to need help even though the holidays are over."
How to help
Volunteer your time: Food pantries always need volunteers to help organize shelves and prepare items for distribution.
Donate food: Even though most pantries can't operate solely on nonperishable items collected during food drives, they do help.
Make fiscal contributions: Tax-deductible cash gifts are always welcome, particularly to help with the transportation, storage and purchasing of food stocks.