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Shields Township Food Pantry Extends Healing Hand Against an Unforgiving Economy

Lake Forest, Lake Bluff residents join ranks of those looking for assistance.

More than two years ago, Bob was a senior executive making more than $200,000 a year.

These days, the Lake Bluff resident, who asked not to use his last name to protect his children, calls himself one of the country’s “new poor.”

Rather than buying his children whatever they want, he now has to budget for everything from a movie theater ticket to food.

Having already exhausted all of his unemployment benefits, Bob is now a “99er,” meaning he used up his state and federal government-provided 99 weeks of unemployment funds.

While he used to donate money and items to places like the Salvation Army and local food pantries, Bob and his family are now those organizations’ clients.

Food Pantry ‘absolute life-saver’

One of the organizations Bob visits on a regular basis, in addition to local churches and Catholic Charities, is the .

There, he regularly receives three bags of food to help feed his wife and four children. “I’m a regular customer of the food pantry,” Bob said. “The Shields Township Food Pantry has been an absolute life-saver for me.”

Bob graduated from college in 1977 with an accounting degree. He worked in the healthcare field and then taught accounting and economics for nine years at the high school he graduated from. Bob then worked in the commercial lending industry, climbing the corporate ladder in New Jersey for 18 years.

On Dec. 7, 2007, Bob relocated to Illinois to work as a senior vice president of risk/asset management for his employer. Less than a year later, in August 2008, Bob’s employer told him his position had been eliminated. That company later closed its doors.

“We’ve been struggling ever since then,” said Bob.

He and his family were evicted from their corporate rental home. They were evicted again in November 2010 from a home they had been renting in Lake Bluff. He and his family were subsequently split up for three weeks, with Bob and his wife living in hotels while their children stayed with friends. The family has also dealt with having their utilities shut off.

Unforgiving job market

While Bob has been actively looking for work since losing his job, he has found that the “job market is awful.”

“I’m 56 years old. They don’t want to talk to you,” said Bob, adding that he has applied for everything from public works positions to retail jobs.

Bob’s unemployment ended in July 2010. His family was already receiving about $450 a month in food stamps prior to that point.

“Since my unemployment ran out, our food stamps have increased to $952 a month,” Bob explained. He noted, however, that with four growing children, that amount is often not enough.

“We go through a gallon of milk a day, easily,” Bob said. “Even with that (amount), we ran out of food stamps four days ago. And it’s not like we’re buying steak."

As of March 24, Bob said his family was out of food stamps and their checking account was overdrawn by $33.

It’s times like those that Bob is truly grateful for the Shields Township Food Pantry.

“Thank God for Shields Township,” said Bob. “We could not have survived without Shields Township.”

More Lake Bluff, Lake Forest families use food pantry

Bob's family is among the 60 to 70 families, on average, who visit the Shields Township Food Pantry each month, said Program Coordinator Kathy French.

“There is a need here,” said French.

The number of families coming to the food pantry actually dropped last year to 807 after hitting 980 in 2009. This year, 137 people were counted for January and February. French attributed the decline in numbers from 2009 to 2010 to the township board's decision that only Shields Township residents could use the food pantry.

Shields Township includes parts of North Chicago and Lake Forest, along with all of Lake Bluff. French said she has seen more clients coming from Lake Bluff and Lake Forest.

“It’s affecting so many people,” said Township Supervisor Gale Strenger Wayne. “These are such unprecedented times. There are a lot of familiar faces from Lake Forest and Lake Bluff that are coming in.”

Thanks to Shields Townships’ generous communities, the food pantry’s shelves are full. The items include macaroni-and-cheese, canned tuna, soups, canned vegetables, cereal, peanut butter, pasta, canned milk, oatmeal and many other items. French said the food pantry has a list of staple items that are pre-packed into bags for clients to pick up.

The food pantry also provides holiday meal boxes to families each year at Thanksgiving. The boxes include a turkey, vegetables, bread and boxed mashed potatoes.

Generous communities contribute

Local businesses, churches and organizations regularly hold food drives and donate the items to the food pantry, French said. Most recently, Lake Bluff Boy Scout Troop 42 distributed bags around the community and later collected the food-filled bags. “We were the beneficiaries,” said French.

Strenger Wayne added the food pantry received $646 in 2009 and more than $3,000 in 2010 from the Lake Bluff Barbeque Society‘s annual Ribfest. The money was raised through donations collected during the “people‘s choice" portion of the Ribfest contest.

“The Shields Township Food Pantry has been very blessed," said French. “The community is such a generous, giving community.”

The pantry also purchases items from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Eight or nine pounds of food costs just a dollar at the Food Bank, French said. “We have been able to keep up with the need,” she said.

The items that are often lacking, however, are paper products and toiletries. These are items that people cannot purchase with their Link cards or food stamps, French said.

“What we really need now are toiletries,” including shampoos, conditioners, lotions and shaving cream, said French. Paper towels, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products would also be useful, she said.

“I would rather offer it to somebody than to have them ask,” said Strenger Wayne.  “People feel so good (donating to the food pantry) because they know they’re making an immediate difference in a person’s life."

For clients, Strenger Wayne said township employees make a concerted effort to “really try to make people feel like a family here and that there’s no shame.”
“It’s just a win-win for everybody,” said Strenger Wayne. “It’s literally neighbors helping neighbors in a direct way.”

Keeping it in perspective

In Bob’s case, he is one of those neighbors receiving help.

“(The food pantry) is critically important to families, even those who get some kind of food stamp assistance from the state,” Bob said. “Food pantries are critically important to fill in the gaps.”

Bob said when he is working again, he will definitely donate items and money to places like the Shields Township Food Pantry.

“It kind of sharpens your awareness and sensitivity to people who are in that situation,” Bob said of being unemployed and using the food pantry’s services. “We’ll always, always be making donations to those types of organizations.”

Bob added that even after he is working again, there are two things he will never throw away. In fact, he plans to frame them and hang them above his desk as a reminder: his unemployment card and his Link card.

For information on how or where to donate items to the food pantry, call (847) 234-0802. The food pantry is located at 906 Muir Ave. in Lake Bluff. 

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