ANTIOCH – On a recent morning, volunteers put together boxes of food at Open Arms Mission, the pantry that serves Antioch and Lake Villa townships.
Among them are Barb Boldt of Bristol, Wis., Lynn Holstrom of Lindenhurst and Ron Placko of Antioch.
In a few hours, people needing food – known as clients – would come to get their boxes. Each fills out a "client choice form" to indicate what they need. Among the options are milk, soup, vegetables, pasta sauce, and macaroni and cheese.
The warehouse's shelves are organized in the same order as the items on the sheet, so volunteers can easily fill boxes.
When a family first approaches the pantry, it goes through what is known as an "in-take" process, where they give their information. Outside the in-take room is a wall painted with four flowers. Above them reads, "Julieanne's Bright Space," where children play while waiting for their parents. They have a play kitchen, books and blocks, among other things.
The room is named after Julieanne Kriens, 20, of Antioch, who died in a car accident in 2007. She had volunteered at the pantry for years.
Open Arms has a "dedicated core" of 76 volunteers and just two staff members, both part time – Executive Director Mary Therese Ambacher and Office Manager Ann Ackley.
Now, Open Arms serves an average of 301 families a week, about the number it has been for the last couple of years. That includes 157 families at the pantry, providing each two days of meals, including milk and frozen meat. The pantry also delivers to 144 households for those who are homebound and without transportation, giving the same items, with the exception of meat and milk.
Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank hasn't seen a decrease in need, however.
In an interview earlier this summer, Donna Lake of the food bank said many agencies are finding that despite talk of an economic recovery, they are seeing increased demand at food banks. One in five kids face hunger, she said.
Her organization has seen a 20 percent increase in food bank use over the last year, she said.
"People are taking jobs at lower wage levels," Lake said. "Others have stopped looking and their unemployment benefits have ended. The need is growing."
At Open Arms, much of the food comes from the community, including local grocery stores. Also, the federal Emergency Food Program contributes food to the pantry through the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
The pantry has been serving about the same number of families that it did before the economy crashed in 2008, Ambacher said. During the recession, Open Arms peaked at about 330 families.
"There will always be people who need assistance. Individuals for whatever reason have no income, low income or small fixed incomes," Ambacher said. "Generally, these are people who are disabled either medically or emotionally. They have gone through some type of trauma."
Ambacher, who started volunteering in 2001 and became director five years ago, said she didn't used to see so many people in their 20s.
"The primary group is those 50-plus, who always have the need. Then you've got a new group of young people who are in their 20s. They haven't found their first full-time career position. I'm not talking about college kids; I'm talking about those who don't go to college," Ambacher said.
She said she gets questions from the community about the recipients.
"People ask, 'How do you know you are not enabling drug users?' There is a small percentage of people who are not leading lives the way you want them to. They have to eat. We may do something that may help them get back on their feet," Ambacher said. "We are not here to judge people; we are here to help them through a tough time."