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Co-founder of HOI Harvest calls volunteers heroes

Heart of Illinois Harvest

Bill Lervagg remembers when Peoria didn’t have a food rescue program like the Heart of Illinois Harvest. Lervaag recalled that he and Bob Baietto, a retired high school principal and former member of the Peoria County Board, helped form Harvest in 1992. Other co-founders included Hobe Albright and Gene Slevin, both deceased.

The program has a simple goal—to help feed the area hungry with food that would otherwise be wasted, he said. “We don’t warehouse anything,” said Lervaag, pointing out that some 50 volunteers pick up bread, rolls and packaged items donated by stores and take them directly to food kitchens operating in 60 shelters, churches, food pantries, schools and organizations throughout the Peoria area.

Those volunteers, many who have been with HOI Harvest for over 20 years, retrieve food six days a week from some 50 area supermarkets, stores, restaurants and schools that are part of the program. “Harvest’s volunteers work all year round no matter what the weather. They are our heroes. The volunteers usually begin about 7:30 a.m. and work until 1 p.m.,” he said.

In 2022, Harvest picked up an average of four to seven tons of food per week. The food, which exceeds half a million pounds in a year, would have gone to landfills if Harvest didn't rescue it, said Lervaag, who recalled a special pickup earlier this year.

“We got a call from a supplier who had frozen 12 to 14-pound precooked turkeys to pick up. It turns out we picked up 8,000 pounds of turkey that day . All the volunteers, the pantries and the folks who received the food were all crying tears of joy. So many families were grateful that they were able to enjoy a turkey dinner before Easter,” he said.

Lervaag added that the donors of food and funds for the organization helped make the operation’s success possible.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.