'Face of hunger is changing' at local food pantries

Volunteer Jim Clausius offers Hailey Clay a cup of fruit as Devon Clay, holding Dani, gathers food items for four people at the Quincy Catholic Charities Food Pantry. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Jul. 15, 2013 8:57 am Updated: Jul. 29, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Nancy Tucker's words were borderline haunting.

"The face of hunger is changing," said Tucker, who coordinates a community food pantry at Quanada, where she is also house manager for the non-profit site that provides assistance for victims of abuse.

In recent years, Tucker has noticed a specific change in some of the clientele at the food pantry.

"I am seeing people who, at one time, used to donate to the pantry," Tucker said. "Now, they are here to get food."

Similar stories are told at most food-assistance sites across the region as the number of families and individuals in need continues to grow. Government studies indicate that for one in every six Americans, hunger is now a reality.

Esther Bassett is one of those who only a few years ago never dreamed she would find herself requiring assistance, but now she relies on aid from sites such as Quincy Catholic Charities.

Esther saw her life spiral out of control following the death of her husband, former Quincy Symphony Orchestra conductor Clyde Bassett, in 2005. Esther, a former jazz singer, and Clyde had been married 27 years.

"Everything changed after his death," she said. "I even lost my house."

Now, she relies heavily on assistance programs and is grateful, she said, to be in a city like Quincy that feels the need to help those like herself.

Esther readily admits she is not too proud to stand in line to help make ends meet.

"Each (assistance site) has different stuff," she said. "You learn there is a lot of help in Quincy."

When possible, Esther provides assistance, too.

"I share everything I have," she said. "You have to share. I have found that if I give something, I always get (much more) back in return."

Jackie Bruns is the area director at Quincy Catholic Charities and she is not optimistic about the future. She expects her organization to be taxed even heavier in the coming weeks, months and years.

"There is really no end in sight," she said.

Bruns said Quincy Catholic Charities served record numbers of individuals (17,967) and families (5,980) during its most recent fiscal year that closed in June.

Bruns sees the faces of need on a daily basis.

"And they are so appreciative," she said.

Devon Clay is a young Quincy mother of two little girls who both have health issues.

"I stay home with our children ... my husband works, but we need the help to get by," she said.

More than 23 percent of Illinois households with children struggle to afford enough food, according to the website, which also said more than 745,000 children in the state are at risk of hunger and not getting the food they need to lead healthy, active lives.

Many of the local food pantries receive commodities from the non-profit Central Illinois Foodbank in Springfield, which distributes more than 8 million pounds of food each year to sites in 21 different counties. Local pantries also rely heavily on donations and grants.

Supplies from the Central Illinois Foodbank normally come early each month -- and go quickly.

"Right now, we're OK -- there's food on the shelves," said Kirk Frageman, who volunteers at Quincy Catholic Charities.

Most food pantries have limited hours and many set limits on the number of visits an individual or family can make each month. That is in an effort to distribute the available food as fairly as possible and to as many in need as possible.

The food pantry run by St. Francis Church operates in a different fashion than most. Spokesman Judy Akers said all requests are delivered by volunteers since the food pantry is inside St. Francis School, which prohibits public access. Akers fields the requests and then a volunteer driver will make the delivery.

The St. Francis food pantry, like many others, has gone to a computerized record-keeping system to try and make sure no individual or group abuses the benevolence.

"(The computerization) has really helped," Akers said. "We allow someone to use the food pantry once every two months, so when someone calls I can check the computer and see if they are eligible (at that time)."

Akers said strong support by St. Francis parishioners has allowed the church's food pantry to remain relatively well-stocked. Parishioners are asked to donate items once a month.

"The amount of groceries we have going out has increased, but we have a very giving parish," Akers said.

Bruns said there is always a food-pantry emphasis on "kid friendly" types of products that involve pasta, oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, cereal and similar items that can be "stretched" into more than one meal.

Tucker said the drain on food pantries rises in summer months because kids are out of school.

During the school year, many children from low-income families receive as many as two meals a day at school. Many of those families have a difficult time supplying those meals at home in the summer months, which means there is no seasonal break or down time for the food pantries.

"We always need assistance," Tucker said.