September 27, 2022

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Simply The Best Food

Enough to eat? How food insecurity affects thousands in Bloomington-Normal | Local News

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BLOOMINGTON — Inside Western Avenue Community Center, Angelique Racki sat down at a table with the free weekly box of fresh produce her family needs.

“I’ve been on Link a very long time,” she sighed, referring to the electronic card that allows qualifying Illinois residents to access federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, once commonly known as food stamps.







Angelique Racki

Racki


Paul Swiech



Racki, founder of BCAI Cultural Arts & Humanities in Bloomington, is among roughly 2 million people in Illinois receiving the assistance. SNAP benefits are awarded based on income, household size and other criteria. Over 25,000 recipients live in McLean and Livingston counties, according to recent state data.

Racki said the government program helps, but she still struggles to get adequate food — nutrition that’s critical for her body.

“On top of it, I’m pregnant,” she said.

Like Racki, a significant portion of McLean County’s population struggles with consistent access to enough food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Feeding America, the national food bank network that tracks and analyzes data at state and county levels, estimates that 15,910 residents experienced food insecurity in 2020 — a rate of 9.2% of the population.

A lack of money and other resources, like a reliable vehicle, present obstacles for many, particularly those who live in lower-income areas where full-service grocery stores are farther away. Cheaper, more accessible convenience foods tend to be higher in sugar and fats, making for a diet that can lead to obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other health problems.

In other words, as Racki put it, “just because you’re in poverty, you have to suffer more.”

A patchwork of organizations and nonprofits throughout McLean County is working to combat the problem in various ways: urban gardens, food pantries, meal drop-offs, produce pickups, nonperishable food boxes and donations. Yet even with the literal tons of food that are routinely collected and donated, some families in the Bloomington-Normal area still struggle to put nutritious meals on the table.

And the cost of doing so is only going up. Inflation in the U.S. is at a 40-year high. Gas prices have been surging, with the county average about $4.45 a gallon. Prices for food increased 10.4% over the 12-month period ending in June — the largest increase since February 1981, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We need everyone to have access to food,” said Erin Kennedy, a member of the McLean County Community Health Council’s executive steering committee. 

She said people need to rethink how they view food insecurity.







Erin Kennedy

Kennedy


“COVID has taught us a really strong lesson,” said Kennedy, who is also the manager of the Center for Healthy Lifestyles at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center. “It’s not just about ‘me,’ as an individual; it’s about us as a community.”

Distance adds challenge

Parts of the Twin Cities are considered a “food desert” — an area where residents don’t have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store — under standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Roughly a quarter of McLean County adults live more than a mile from a grocery store, or 10 miles in rural areas, according to the health department’s 2020-2022 community health improvement plan.

Sharp disparities exist between different areas of the community. Along a five-mile stretch of Veterans Parkway in east Bloomington, almost a dozen major supermarkets and a few specialty grocers pepper the landscape. The same length of road on Main Street has two, almost three miles apart.

Residents in some parts of the city’s west side are at least two miles from a supermarket. The distance represents another obstacle for people who don’t have reliable access to their own vehicles, cannot drive themselves because of disabilities or other factors, or who simply cannot spare the gas money.

“You’re going two miles in either direction to get a tomato, a potato,” said westside resident Candice Byrd.

Byrd was among those receiving a fresh produce box from Western Avenue Community Center on a recent hot summer day. When she doesn’t have a car, she said, she often waits up to an hour for a bus, making it difficult to keep food from spoiling in the heat.

And she cannot take her children along on those trips. “Imagine this 99-degree heat,” she said, “and I’ve got a child.”

The westside food desert has long been a focus of concern for community leaders. The West Market Street Council formed in 2018 with a goal of buying the former Fox Plaza West at Howard and West Market streets and bringing a grocery store there. A hundred people gathered on a hot July day in 2020 to celebrate demolition of buildings in the plaza — and what they hoped would be the first step toward the area’s transformation.

But two years later, the effort has stalled and its future remains uncertain. Progress was derailed by debt and legal issues associated with the property as well as the death of its former owner. Foreclosure proceedings led to an auction at the McLean County Law and Justice Center last week, but the plaza didn’t receive a single bid.

Stereotypes and stigma

Some local advocates say the problem is exacerbated by a stigma surrounding the issue of food insecurity — not only from people who may feel reluctant to acknowledge that they need help, but from others who fail to understand the deep-rooted causes.







Mary Tackett

Tackett




“There are these stereotypes and these histories, like, ‘Oh, it’s the west side,'” said Mary Tackett, executive director of the Western Avenue Community Center.

“I think it’s easy for people to live in their own little keyhole of a life,” she said.

Small-scale farmer Kyan Glenn describes the failure as a systemic one. He regularly donates produce from his Bloomington operation, The Table Farm and Workshop, to local organizations that work to feed the hungry.

“The people that need nutritional food the most are the people who don’t have access to it,” he said.

Glenn said he “grew up poor,” and as a result, ate a lot of fast food along the way. He feels a personal connection to people experiencing food insecurity.

“You can’t blame them, ‘Oh, they made their choices.’ No,” said Glenn, a former youth pastor. “It’s not their choice (to live in a food desert).”

The way that people view food assistance can also prevent those who need help from seeking it, advocates say. 







The Table

Kyan Glenn, center, sells produce from his farm, The Table, at the downtown Bloomington farmers market in Bloomington. 


D. Jack Alkire



“Going to a food bank is not a negative thing,” said Kennedy, the county health council member. “It should not be a negative thought process.” 

She said there is a common misconception that only underserved communities need food banks. In reality, she said, many could use the help to apply their resources on other needs and ultimately improve their quality of life. 

“If (people are) struggling to pay rent,” she said, “they could save money by going to a food bank, and that money goes to rent or to transportation or to daycare.”

Still, people may be hesitant to accept help because “they think they’re taking from people who ‘really need it,'” said Caleb Phillips, who runs Sunnyside Community Gardens and Food Forest off Illinois Street in Bloomington. 

Phillips donates produce to Home Sweet Home Bread for Life Co-op, which allows members to take as much food as they need in exchange for a few hours of volunteer labor. The organization’s model is designed to help people “without making them feel degraded or just another number,” according to community outreach manager Samantha Williams. 







Samantha Williams

Williams 


Yet when Phillips took members of his church to the co-op, they balked. “They’d say, ‘We’re not going to have food that comes out of a food bank,'” he said. “Why?” 

Williams said the co-op radically changed its approach seven years ago in an effort to combat exactly that type of stigmatization. Previously, it had operated as a typical food pantry with little to no social interaction; clients would “come in, get a box and leave.” 

By changing its model to a co-op, the organization created a new dynamic: community. Members can visit twice a month, work for two hours keeping the store clean and shelves stocked, and then they receive a voucher that allows them to take whatever food they need. The interaction has allowed members to form real relationships, she said. 

Inflation has driven up membership usage as the cost of everything is increasing. “What’s not going up,” Williams said, “is the pay rate.” 

Williams rattled off some members’ occupations, including “several teachers, a couple of police officers, social workers: people with regular, full-time jobs.” A low estimate for weekly attendance is 40 members, and the collective need is growing. 







Bread for Life Co-op

Peggy Ann Milton stocks and arranges baby products at the Bread for Life Co-op in Bloomington. Milton is a member of the co-op. 


D. Jack Alkire



She gestured to the co-op’s line of half-size grocery carts. “At least within the last two to three weeks, no one has taken less that two carts,” she said. 

Kennedy said the economic ripple effect of the pandemic helped change people’s minds. 

“COVID has touched everybody’s life in one way or the other,” she said. “Part of this is the opportunity to de-stigmatize that food banks are only for a specific part of the population.”

There are other factors forcing this rethinking as well.

Tara Ingham, executive director of the Midwest Food Bank, said inflation is hurting everyone, especially those at or near the federal poverty line.







Tara Ingham

Ingham


The Bloomington-based nonprofit distributes food to over 2,000 agencies. Rising costs have increased demand by 25% on average, she said. 

Food insecurity doesn’t discriminate, she said. “A lot of us will find ourselves in that situation.” 

Need for nutrients

Food insecurity does not refer simply to having access to any food. Health experts have long stressed the importance of making sure people have access to “nutrient-dense” foods that provide vitamins and minerals without large amounts of added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. In other words: fruits, vegetables, proteins.

USDA dietary guidelines iterate the important link between a healthy diet and a healthy life. The agency notes that a healthy diet “can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases” like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart conditions.

Nutrient-dense foods are especially necessary for people dealing with chronic illnesses, said Staci Coussens, SNAP-Ed educator with the University of Illinois Extension.







Sunnyside Community Garden

Caleb Phillips picks lettuce with his apprentices at Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest. The garden grows food for families in Bloomington as well as selling produce on Market Wagon. 


D. Jack Alkire



“Families who are visiting food pantries (often) have at least one if not more family member in the household who has diabetes, who has hypertension, who has high blood pressure … or heart disease,” she said.

Or, as Glenn put it: “This food in America is killing us.” 

Yet a 2018 community health survey found that 55% of McLean County adults reported no consumption or low consumption (one to two servings per day) of fruits and vegetables. Multiple factors likely contribute to the issue, including barriers to access.

“Not only is it hard to get affordable groceries, but it’s really hard to get fresh produce,” said Kristen Buhrmann, president of the West Bloomington Revitalization Project.

The organization is among a number of nonprofits and advocates, like Glenn, working to try to fill the gaps.







Western Avenue Community Center

Kristen Buhrmann stacks boxes of fresh produce at Western Avenue Community Center for the start of this year’s community supported agriculture program. 


D. Jack Alkire



The Western Avenue Community Center and the West Bloomington Revitalization Project partnered this year to provide fresh produce boxes to 48 westside families through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Separately, the community center distributes dozens of free food boxes each month through a program funded by the Tinervin Family Foundation.

For Byrd, the fresh produce she gets from the center has brought positive changes in her kids’ diets.

They’re teenagers, she said, and “picky eaters” — but now they have some new favorites. One of their most beloved is the hakurei turnip, a Japanese root vegetable. “They’re so sweet, you could eat it without cooking it,” she said, laughing.

She’s grateful for the program.

“A fresh meal that you can cook for your family without a microwave is a blessing,” Byrd said.

Contact D. Jack Alkire at (309)820-3275. 

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