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Volunteers at Willow Creek Community Church's Care Center in Hoffman Estates, which houses its industrial-sized food pantry, have made a familiar observation: numbers of visits are soaring.
Food pantries across the suburbs are seeing double-digit increases this year, as the economy slowly rebounds from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And just like in the last century when Victory Gardens supplemented dinner tables, today's gardens are helping those in need stretch their budgets as well.
Willow Creek's Care Center is one of the largest in the suburbs. It serves nearly 5,000 families a month, who come from a 10-mile radius for their monthly bag of food items, and weekly loaves of bread.
However, while the pantry is known for its generous amounts of food, organizers would love to be able to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables to their clients.
"It's nutritious and just makes it seem more personal for the families," says Armando Ortiz, warehouse manager.
Donations of fresh fruits and vegetables through the Daily Herald's Giving Garden program begins this weekend and runs through the end of September. That's when gardeners may bring in surplus fruits and vegetables to more than 50 local food pantries across Cook, Lake, Kane, DuPage and McHenry counties.
Last year, gardeners stepped up to donate thousands of pounds of produce at Willow Creek, leading pantry organizers to depend on the fresh contributions more and more.
Willow Creek's members were among them as they made a renewed effort to cultivate their own 3,000-square-foot vegetable garden, located south of the church on its South Barrington campus, near its Fast Trac parking lot.
Led by member Steve Wilcox of Roselle, they rolled up their sleeves and worked in the garden on Saturdays, solely for the purpose of contributing fresh vegetables to the pantry visitors.
They planted tomatoes, potatoes, squash, onions, lettuce, cabbage and a variety of peppers, and by the end of the summer, were contributing several hundred pounds of produce each week to the pantry.
This year they say they plan to learn from last season's experiences and hopefully cultivate even more produce from the garden.
Pantries throughout the region are looking for ways to increase fresh produce as they step up efforts to provide a nutritionally balanced offering of food to patrons.
In Round Lake, park district officials are working with College of Lake County's horticulture students to develop a "food pantry production farm."
While the students have measured and surveyed the land, residents now are renting plots. If they share their produce with the pantry, they will get a 50 percent discount.
Encouraging more gardeners makes sense. They point to food pantry users that have doubled in number this year, to more than 2,400 people a month.
At Geneva's award winning Green Market, founders Karen Stark and Connie Weaver hope to convince more of their vendors to contribute their surplus and unsold produce to the Salvation Army food pantry.
Its mission is to offer locally grown organic produce and to educate consumers about sustainable fresh food.
"Donating fresh fruits and vegetables to the food pantries goes along with our mission perfectly," Weaver says. "It just makes sense, and we're hoping to promote it more."