The good news is the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry is more popular than ever. The bad news is that the food pantry is so popular, they need help.

Volunteers aren’t a problem, say food pantry co-directors Kathy Russell and Michele Zurakowski.

“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.   

With a 75-percent increase in client demand over this time last year – over and above 2007’s surge in demand – pantry officials are scrambling to find money, resources and space to meet increasing need. They’re hoping both state government and average citizens are willing to step up with additional resources.

“We’re not sure we can sustain this growth,” said Russell.

Looking to address the first goal, Russell and Zurakowski had state Sen. Don Harmon and state representatives Deborah Graham and LaShawn Ford over to their headquarters Monday morning for a tour of their facility, followed by coffee and conversation.
The two women hope Oak Park’s three elected state officials can find enough funds in the still-forming 2009-10 budget to provide their operation with a heavy duty box truck, one capable of numerous monthly runs to pick up heavy loads of food stuff.

$20K needed for truck

The food pantry currently spends around $3,000 per year on truck rentals. That has increased to $4,000 for the current budget year.

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

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

He called the food pantry’s efforts “extraordinary,” and said such good and worthy local models should be given a fair audience in Springfield. 

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

That money, if available, will likely come from the state’s operation budget. Graham said getting the idea of some form of funding into the budget process now is essential. She and her two colleagues urged Russell and Zurakowski to send formal written proposals with a requested funding sum to them, as well as to the area’s other legislators, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th Dist.) and state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (7th Dist.).

“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.”

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

Every little bit counts

Russell and Zurakowski stress that, because of its association with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the OP-RF Food Pantry can provide a family of four with a 30-pound bag of its “standard allotment” of foods, including 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 in this area.

Because springtime, they say, is traditionally the leanest time for food donations at pantries, they’re urging Oak Park and River Forest residents 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, which 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. For more information on the OP-RF Food Pantry, including what’s typically in their standard allotment, go online at www.oprffoodpantry.org.

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