URBANA, Ill. – Lunch took on a new meaning at the Illinois 4-H Hunger Summit held Sept. 21-23 in Normal. Sponsored by University of Illinois Extension 4-H, the summit was the first statewide training to prepare 4-H teens to tackle hunger issues in their local communities.
When the 60 participants opened their lunchboxes Saturday, many were surprised, said Bill Million, Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist. Some boxes contained an abundance of food; others just a banana or a bag of chips.
Deana McDonagh, U of I professor of industrial design, said the activity helps teens put themselves in the role of the people they hope to help. “If you don’t put the person in the center of your planning,” McDonagh said, “you’re not going to make an impact.”
Industrial design touches everything you experience daily, according to McDonagh. Empathetic designers “experience the experience of other people’s experiences,” she said. The lunchbox lesson illustrates the hunger experience for thousands of Illinoisans daily.
Teens with only chips or only bananas looked across the table at their peers with full boxes, one admitting she was “a little jealous” at the bountiful meals others received. Ojas Shah of McLean County said he needed a vegetarian meal, but got a meat sandwich instead. Teens at the table offered to switch with Ojas. McDonagh said that if others weren’t there to help, Ojas would have to choose between sacrificing his vegetarian desire or going without.
The activity prepared the youth for their weekend goal: designing a plan to address hunger in their local community. In addition to the hunger simulation, teens toured Midwest Food Bank, a 100,000 square-foot food distribution center in Normal.
David Keiser and his farming family started the food bank in a 9,600-square-foot building on their farm. The response was overwhelming and the need was great, said Mark Csanda, community center administrator for the food bank. Today, the new facility in Normal services 275 agencies monthly.
“We gather up food and give it away,” Csanda said, “all free of charge.”
Last year, the food bank distributed $116 million worth of food. “We know some people will not eat next week if we aren’t doing what we do here,” Csanda said.
The center receives 160 semi-loads of food a month. All of the food they receive for redistribution is donated. Kellogg’s and Wal-Mart are two of the largest contributors.
In addition to serving food pantries across the state, Midwest also responds to disasters, working through the Salvation Army and Red Cross to package boxes which provide a family of four with a week’s worth of supplies. The Katrina hurricane was the first disaster the center responded to, and by the end of the emergency, Midwest had delivered 150 semi-loads of food to the area.
Volunteers are currently packing disaster boxes destined for Hurricane Florence victims in North Carolina.
Some bulk materials are packaged as ready-to-cook meals. Called “tender mercies” meals, the packets of rice, beans, and seasoning feed four people per pack.
Most of the workers are volunteers. In fact, there is a waiting list of groups in the area waiting and wanting to help, said volunteer Steve Shuitt. Summit participants spent two hours repackaging bulk boxes of granola into family sized, vacuum-sealed sacks. The group packaged 1,500 bags.
“There will be a little kid eating granola next week who might not have had any food because of your work here today,” Csanda said.
Many 4-H groups are already making a difference in their communities. The Olympia Pacesetters 4-H Club of McLean County operates the Helping Hands food pantry and clothing exchange center in Stanford. The food pantry has scheduled hours. Between distribution dates, the club built an emergency mini food pantry outside the center. The metal pantry was built as a 4-H welding project by a 4-H club member. People are encouraged to take what they need, or drop off food when they have excess.
The club also grows fresh produce in the Stanford Sprouts Community Garden. The garden allows club members to learn about horticulture and environmental sustainability while providing service to their community, said club leader Kathy Weinzierl.
Teens investigated the issues of hunger, such as lack of transportation to stores, cost of healthy food options, food portions and waste, and the lack of media attention. Participants said they were not aware of many of the problems faced by those in need.
“I didn’t know people eat less healthy food because it’s cheaper than fruits and vegetables,” said Dhruv Rebba. He said he was shocked to learn that 12 percent of people in McLean County experience hunger. Hunger Mentor Karena Musgrave said she’s now challenged to donate healthier food to local pantries, even though it’s more expensive.
Most teens planned to tell the hunger story in their local communities. “People push it away and don’t think about it because it’s sad,” said Ava Galban. “We need to get the truth out and educate people.”
Teen instructors included Kate Miller of Hamilton County, Anne Becker of Morgan County, and Megan Miller of Bond County who have initiated hunger projects in their communities, as well as other Hamilton County club members who have used their community garden produce in their youth cooking schools.
The Illinois 4-H Foundation provided financial support for the event.