MACOMB — Wednesday, December 19, The Old Dairy acted as venue for a discussion between community organizations and the Obama Legacy Initiative, aiming to improve food access and sustainability in Macomb and the surrounding county.
The Environmental Justice Coalition of the Democratic Women of McDonough County organized the event. Leading the discussion was Fred Greenwood, President and co-founder of OLI. He was visiting to take in concerns and challenges specific to the Macomb community, and offering advice where he could.
Greenwood opened with a brief presentation about the organization, and its origins at the end of the Obama administration. He said the project initially sought to carry on the Obama name through parks, buildings, and the like, but that it didn’t feel like what the President would have wanted. The project began working against challenges of food sustainability in communities around Naperville, where Greenwood lives.
The organization has advocated for community gardens in and around the Chicago area, taking inspiration from the Victory Gardens of World War II. Donations to the organization are used to accumulate the necessary resources, including the materials to build them, and the instructors to teach communities how to use them.
One member of the housing authority at Thursday’s meeting said that the community gardens in Macomb are available, but under-used. Aiming to increase participation, Greenwood suggested bringing in master gardeners and making an event out of it, encouraging families to come learn the basics of gardening. Though some suggested budgeting entertainment for the children of these families, Greenwood said not to underestimate how much the children will enjoy gardening.
In Macomb, he said one unique challenge he noticed was the decreasing student population. Among the largest employers in Macomb, WIU’s declining student and faculty population creates a demand for more sustainable food sources, Greenwood said.
“When a lot of these people leave and say, ‘we’re going to get a job someplace else,’ how many of these people can’t? Where are they going to go?” Greenwood said. “So, we’re focusing on those people and not only keeping them alive, but keeping them healthy. Kids — they know for a fact that if kids get nutritious food, they do better in school.”
John Curtis, executive director of Genesis Garden, told Greenwood during the meeting that while he wasn’t certain of what percentage of the community used SNAP benefits, he said 60% of Macomb grade-school children K-3 use free or reduced lunch programs.
In Macomb, some community members told Greenwood there is an issue with attitude towards those in need. Dr. Essie Rutledge, professor emeritus of sociology at WIU, said that there are some in the community who don’t understand what circumstances can force someone to use benefit programs like SNAP, or a local food pantry. Rutledge said it’s hard for some in the community to realize they cannot judge what someone is capable of at a glance. What comes easy to some might not be possible for others, she said, such as finding work.
Adding to the idea of judging from outward appearances, Greenwood said it boils down to need. Regardless of what brings someone to a pantry or a community garden, people that are hungry need to eat, he said.
“Nobody should make you feel bad for needing food,” Greenwood said.
Since Fall 2014, data from the Northern Illinois Food Bank shows a major increase in inventory at food banks near and around Northern Illinois. Where only 25 percent of food pantries were able to meet more than 75 percent of their communities’ demands in 2014, that number has dramatically increased in 2019 to 91 percent of pantries meeting more than 75 percent of their demand.
NIFB’s data also shows that in 2019, nearly 1.3 million meals were dispersed through 1,500+ SNAP benefit applicants, an average of 2.5 meals per day per recipient. The data also show 451 mobile pantry visits with more than 2.2 million meals distributed, more than 290,000 meals delivered through senior aid programs, and more than 1.6 million meals distributed to children via programs like the Backpack Program, Afterschool Meals Program, and Summer Meals Program. 77 percent of the Food Bank’s meals are donated, while 14 percent are provided through government aid, and 9 percent are purchased. This data accounts for more than 900 food pantries, soup kitchens, and other feeding programs.
With the decrease in food deserts, as Greenwood calls them, he said the newest struggles will be improving sustainability via community gardens, and making sure that the food available in food pantries meets a higher standard of nutrition. Only 23 percent of food pantry resources include fresh produce, and protein-rich meals make up just 17 percent.
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