Food pantry operations in Oak Park and the West Side might have to use the buddy system in order to meet a growing demand for services.

That’s one suggestion offered by state elected officials representing food shelters in Austin and neighboring Oak Park. On Monday, they visited the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, which has seen an increase in demand for services from its clients. The suburban-area food provider is seeking help from the state and from private individuals to fulfill its responsibilities.

“We’re not sure we can sustain this growth,” said Kathy Russell, co-director of the Oak Park pantry.

With a 75-percent increase in client demand over this time last year – over and above 2007’s surge in demand – the pantry is scrambling to find additional money, resources and space. Russell, and co-director Michele Zurakowski, had state Sen. Don Harmon (39th) and state Representatives Deborah Graham (78th) and LaShawn Ford (8th) over to their headquarters Monday morning for a tour of their facility. Afterward, they had coffee and conversation.

The two women are hopeful that lawmakers can find enough money in the still-forming 2009-2010 budget to help pay for a heavy duty, box truck, one capable of numerous monthly runs to pick up heavy loads of food stuff. The Oak Park pantry currently spends about $3,000 per year on truck rentals. That has increased to $4,000 for its current budget year.

“We always have to think, ‘is it worth the $80 [per trip] rental?’ We’d rather see that money go toward food for our clients,” said Russell.

Graham and Ford both noted struggling pantry operations on the West Side, which could also benefit from access to a reliable delivery truck. Harmon added that a proposal for shared use of a truck between the Oak Park and the more cash-strapped West Side operations would likely receive a better reception in Springfield.

Harmon called the Oak Park provider’s current efforts “extraordinary.” He also noted that such a model at the local level should be given a fair audience in Springfield. 

“We should find ways for the state to help these local efforts,” said Harmon. “If we can’t feed hungry Illinoisians, we’re not doing our jobs right.”

The pantry estimates a good, durable truck will cost about $20,000. That money, if available, will likely come from the state’s operation budget. Having some kind of an idea about funding now, Graham noted, is essential in the budget process. She and her two colleagues urged Russell and Zurakowski to send formal written proposals – with a requested funding sum – to them. She also advised them to reach out to their other area legislators: state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) and state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (7th).

“That’s how we move forward,” Graham said. “We find out where it will fit in the budget, and we negotiate to get it there.”

Ford added, “I fully support this. There’s got to be some strong effort to pick up the slack where government has let people down.”

As for volunteers, that’s not a problem, the Oak Park pantry directors noted.

“We have a great group of volunteers,” said Zurakowski, characterizing their worker base as stable, committed and hard working. “What’s needed is more money and resources.”   

Russell and Zurakowski stress that, because of its association with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, their pantry can provide a family of four with a 30-pound bag of its “standard allotment” of foods. This includes pasta and bread, meat, vegetables, fruits and juices – for just $4.86. That unequaled buying power, they argue, makes them the best choice for those looking to make charitable donations to help feed the hungry. Springtime, the directors said, is traditionally the leanest time for food donations at pantries. Because of this, Russell and Zurakowski are urging residents in their suburban-area to donate in April while the food pantry is participating in the annual Feinstein Challenge.

Every year in March and April, philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein holds his charity challenge where he divvies up $1 million in funding proportionally to participants. Last year, the food pantry collected 10,168 food items and $22,190 in cash in response to the Feinstein Challenge. They are hoping to do even better this year.

“You don’t have to be rich to make a difference; you just have to act,” said Russell. 

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