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'The need is much greater': Food insecurity worsens post-pandemic in Greater Peoria

Sack lunches often include both a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a ham or turkey sandwich.
Camryn Cutinello
Sack lunches often include both a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a ham or turkey sandwich.

A combination of grocery store closures, transportation barriers and rising food prices have left nearly 33,000 people without access to nutritious food.

That’s according to HEAL Food System Partners, a collaboration of food pantries, health departments and nonprofits working to combat food insecurity in the Tri-County area.

Rebecca Crumrine, a SNAP-ed educator with the University of Illinois Extension, said during the pandemic there was more focus on helping people get food. Extra aid from the federal government assisted people cover food bills.

But that extra financial assistance ended earlier this year.

“Now we're actually seeing that the need is much greater than it was during COVID or even before COVID, a lot of my pantries are saying,” Crumrine said. “So it's something where benefits have been reduced, and the price of items have continued going up.”

The end of the additional aid means more people have turned to food pantries.

Claire Crone is the program director at Sophia’s Kitchen in Peoria, which serves hot meals and operates a food pantry for anyone in need. She said the agency served around 10,000 meals a month for most of the summer and spring.

“We're struggling at Sophia's Kitchen, finding enough food,” Crone said. “The food that we're having to buy is more expensive than before, and our donations are down. Yet we have more clients than we've ever had.”

Crone said she’s lost vendors in the past year and has needed to find new places to purchase food, adding the ingredients for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Sophia’s Kitchen gives out with lunches are among the most difficult to find.

“Bread has been something that we've really struggled to get this year. The places that we usually get it from, that usually donate it to us, they're not donating nearly as much," she said. "They just don't have as much, there's not as much to give,” And then we're having to go out and purchase it and you know, a loaf of bread can go up to $4 a loaf. We feed 400 people a day. So we're looking at some 800 sandwiches a day that are going out.”

HEAL helps people find food pantries near them.

Shanita Wallace, a health educator for the Tazewell County Health Department, said getting to a pantry can be a challenge, especially for people who don’t have a car.

Crumrine said bus routes help, but getting food home on public transportation can be difficult.

“I see people bring suitcases just to try to pack in food so that way they can actually get it home,” she said.

Rebecca Crumrine, a SNAP-ed educator with the University of Illinois Extension.
Rebecca Crumrine, a SNAP-ed educator with the University of Illinois Extension.

These transportation barriers worsen in the winter, when it can get too cold for people to safely wait for a bus or walk outside.

Wallace said HEAL started offering food delivery services during the pandemic, a program that continues to operate. But she said it’s not a permanent solution.

“If we receive a referral or a request from a partner organization or from an individual themselves via phone call or email, we send it out to our listserv of food banks, food pantries, and whoever has food available that day, responds and says they have food,” she said. “And then we have volunteers who actually pick up the food from that location and deliver it.”

Amy Fox, administrator of the Tazewell County Health Department, said the number of people utilizing food delivery services has increased by as much as 40%.

She said there isn’t a one size fits all solution because different regions have different barriers.

“If you live in a very rural area, you might have a distance to everything, not just a grocery store,” she said. “It's your gas station. It's medical care. It's all kinds of things. So the barriers are also different in that you don't have a bus and you don't have a taxi or an Uber that can come and get you and take you.”

Crumrine said they’ve also been working to address mental health concerns. There are training sessions for pantry staff on providing trauma-informed care.

“We are trying to teach our pantry managers and volunteers ways that they could maybe help create a welcoming environment, as well as address when people come through and something might set off a trauma response from that person," Crumrine said. "Okay, how can we better make sure that doesn't happen in the future?”

One of the main focuses of the HEAL partnership is making sure people get nutritious, well-balanced meals.

Many shelf-stable foods that get donated are high in sodium and sugar. Fresh produce and meat get donated less frequently because they cost more and spoil faster.

Claire Crone (left), program director with Sophia's Kitchen, Amy Fox (center), administrator with the Tazewell County Health Department and Shanita Wallace (right), a health educator with the Tazewell County Health Department.
Camryn Cutinello
Claire Crone (left), program director with Sophia's Kitchen, Amy Fox (center), administrator with the Tazewell County Health Department and Shanita Wallace (right), a health educator with the Tazewell County Health Department.

Wallace said they run fresh food drives in the winters when access to produce is the worst.

“Our preferred food drives is a list that is made directly from the food pantries that include fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole green and proteins,” Wallace said.” And we kind of promote the no sugar added, the low sodium. And we kind of center it around a method called greenlight food and our tagline is food is medicine.”

The greenlight method ranks the nutritional value of foods in a green, yellow and red scale. HEAL runs nutrition training for food pantries to teach about the method and how families can create healthy meals.

They also have a garden collaborative that has produced 22,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables for food pantries.

Crone said staff try to make the meals at Sophia’s Kitchen as nutritious as possible.

“Our clients suffer so much from diabetes, high blood pressure, and like she said food is medicine,” she said. “If we start with some basic good nutrition, then we're going to have much healthier people who are much more productive.”

Crumrine said canned meat in water is a low sodium option and canned fruit in juice instead of syrup cuts down on sugar. Shelf stable milk is another item many pantries ask for.

She said they’re also working to get people access to culturally relevant foods.

“Some of our more culturally familiar foods, we actually have some funds that we've been able to use to purchase different food items, you know, rice, beans. It depends on the recipe,” Crumrine said. “We also like to pair a culturally familiar recipe with maybe a little bit of a twist, some substitutes here or there, or ideas of ways to make that food just a little bit healthier.”

Crumrine also said people should check expiration dates, as well as nutrition labels, before donating an item.

“I think when we start to think about that dignity of all of our residents, if we wouldn't eat it why would we think someone else would, right?” she said. “It's not just a clearing out the back of the shelf sort of thing.”

When possible, people can call ahead and ask what a pantry needs before donating. Pantries can also have limited fridge and freezer space, so asking if there’s room for fresh produce or meat can keep food from spoiling.

Fox said other than nutritious food, one of the biggest needs is people.

“I feel like the system in and of itself is really starting to form well together but it is additional people who are contributing where they can,” Fox said. “So, if that's dropping off something after you leave the grocery store for a donation, if that's volunteering, growing an extra row in your garden. You know, it doesn't have to cost a lot to contribute.”

Find Food Illinois offers an online map showing grocery stores, pantries and school meal sites in someone’s area. The site also offers resources to sign up for food assistance, and information on how to donate or volunteer.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.