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April Food Day rallies community, highlights issue of hunger in Chicago south suburbs

South-Southwest Suburban United Way set out to make a difference in the lives of others at its fifth annual April Food Day on April 7. The event, held at the Tinley Park Convention Center, serves as a food drive orchestrated to combat hunger in the south suburbs of Chicago.

“We look forward to it every year now because we like to see it,” said Daniel Fitzgerald, managing director for the Tinley Park Convention Center. “Tinley Park’s one location, but this is the entire Southland that’s being affected by [hunger] and people from all walks of life.

“So, it really creates a lot of kindred spirits—a lot of kinship—and it’s a very diverse group of people, which makes it very interesting as well.”

Seven area food pantries benefitted from the collection, including Together We Cope in Tinley Park, Respond Now in Chicago Heights, as well as Catholic Charities and Restoration Ministries in South Holland.

With the help of Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau—which currently serves 27 hotels, park districts and municipalities—the two organizations branched out to gather as many donations as they could prior to its final push on April 7.

Johanns Williams, of Homewood, is a board member South-Southwest Suburban United Way. Williams said he recognizes people have a tough time accessing resources that they need and its United Way’s intent to close the gap and bring the community together to fully understand the issues of hunger.

“What I’m trying to do is use our resources and our relationship to help people understand that food is love,” Williams said. “It’s probably one of the least amount of things that we can do to show people that we care about them and to help this whole issue with food insecurity.”

“The need continues to increase,” he continued, “and what we find is that there’s a gap between what agencies and different folks who are trying to help provide and what’s needed.”

In its first year, April Food Day brought in nearly 10,000 pounds of food, and this year’s goal is to collect 115,000.

“It’s grown over the years,” Fitzgerald said. “This year is going to be a record. Last year, we did over 90,000 pounds of food. One company, in particular, Pepsi Co. has already donated 43,000 pounds of Quaker products—oatmeal and grits and things like that. We had a nice start to this year with 43,000 [pounds], so we’re hoping to be well over [100,000 to] 120,000 [pounds] this year.”

Many will believe food pantries face the most hardship in trying to reach those in need during the winter months, but that’s not the case. Need is typically higher in spring and summer when donations decrease and supplies diminish.

“That’s the thing when you have a lot of satisfaction of hosting events such as this, but you wish that one day you could cure all ills and it really doesn’t,” Fitzgerald said. “We do have other events—food shows during the year. For instance, Dutch Farms does a food show in February. At the end of the food show, all of that food is donated and pantry trucks come and take that away for various different food pantries around the region.”

Twice a year, Centrella, a brand used by Joliet-based Central Grocers Inc., hosts a food show also at the Tinley Park Convention Center. They, too, take what’s leftover and donate them to local pantries.

“The hunger issue in America is something that, I think, if everyone takes a little bit of responsibility for, we would be in a lot better situation,” Fitzgerald said, noting it is common for people to forget that hunger is an issue that extends to even Chicago’s affluent suburbs.

“I think that people sometimes don’t realize the depravity of those around them, and that’s unfortunate and that is true,” Fitzgerald said. “The cost of living these days, it could be something that creates a family issue that could be a divorce or terminal issue that can create that all of a sudden issue where trying to get a meal on the table is a very difficult thing.

“So, there’s all those pitfalls and things that happen in life’s experience that can create that [struggle.]… It’s not just in the areas where you think it’s pervasive.”

April Food Day is organized in different pockets all across the country. Williams said the event’s mission rings true for many.

“We have people who have learned about April Food Day, understand the vision—which to me is pretty easy,” he said. “You want people to eat, and we go from there.”

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