They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but members of Christian Life Church set out on Saturday to prove that wrong.
With signs promising “free groceries” along Ogden Avenue, volunteers distributed food to anyone who needed it. They were hoping to advertise the church’s daily food pantry and to let struggling families know: There is help.
Last week, census data showed that more Americans are living in poverty than at any point in the last 50 years. Millions more are struggling to make ends meet on tighter paychecks.
“They’re still working — working hard — but just not able to come up with the money they need at the end of the day,” said Eric Stone, pastor of Christian Life Church.
Across the country, 46 million people, or nearly 1 in 7, are below the poverty threshold, which for a family of four is a $22,300 income. It is the largest number since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty in 1959.
In Illinois, more than 1.8 million people, or about 14.1 percent and slightly below the national average, were living in poverty in 2010 — an increase of 130,000 people from just the year before.
The trend is showing up in the region’s food pantries as well.
Christian Life Center’s food pantry is one of three in Lisle and dozens more in the immediate area that receive supplies from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Across the food bank’s 13-county distribution area, food pantries and agencies have seen demand increase, in some cases by half in the last few years, said Donna Lake, spokeswoman for the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Many of the newest visitors are the recently unemployed or underemployed.
“They’re seeing many more people who have lost jobs,” Lake said. “If they’re fortunate enough to find another job, it’s usually at a lower salary. … I’ve talked to a few families who are putting every penny they have to their mortgage so they can keep their house.”
Many of them never expected to be in financial straits, Stone said.
“We’ve had some people who used to donate to the pantry who are now receiving from the pantry,” Stone said.
Hunger afflicts even relatively affluent areas like DuPage County, and it can be particularly tough for families.
In DuPage County, one in five children are “food insecure,” according to a study from the Northern Illinois Food Bank release in August.
“Meaning that they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from,” Lake said. “At some point in the year, there’s not enough food in that household.”
About a third of the children find help in government programs. Their family’s income might qualify them for free or reduced lunches. But most of the children — nearly 30,000 in the DuPage County in all — do not qualify for government assistance. They are slightly above the income threshold, which is 185 percent of the poverty line or about $41,000 for a family of four.
For many, that income does not always provide for the grocery bill.
“In that case, Northern Illinois Food Banks and their agencies, they’re really their only hope of getting food onto their tables,” Lake said.
That is why Christian Life hosted the giveaway Saturday. Their food pantry’s day-to-day location, at 4725 S. Main St., shares a space with the church’s thrift store and can go unnoticed.
But its sister church, First Congregational Church, has a higher profile on Ogden Avenue, and the volunteers could reach more people — maybe those who have never considered visiting a pantry, Stone said.
His food pantry, like many served by Northern Illinois Food Bank, does not require patrons to show documented proof that they are in need.
“Maybe (they’ve) never Googled ‘local food pantries,’ but we feel there are enough people in need,” he said. “The food pantry is not even on their radar as far as perhaps what they can do to alleviate the costs.”