The USDA has designated large swaths of DeKalb County as food deserts — areas that have a significant number of low-income households that also lack easy access to supermarkets. A relatively high number of households without vehicles are located more than half a mile from a supermarket.
The Feeding America Network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries nationwide reports that more than 13 percent of DeKalb County residents are food insecure. That’s nearly 14,000 people.
One of the top 10 food banks in the United States is the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB), which manages 800 feeding sites — including food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters — across 13 counties in northern Illinois. It has centers in Rockford, Geneva and Park City, with offices in Joliet.
NIFB President and CEO Julie Yurko says that, while the reasons for food insecurity may seem simple, the solutions are not.
“It’s driven primarily by a lack of resources,” she said. “These are individuals that, for whatever reason, they don’t have enough money to go to the grocery store, go to the farmer’s market to get the food they need so that they have enough.”
Yurko says they also see trends in who is affected by food insecurity.
“When we look at the nearly half a million people in our 13 counties that we serve through Northern Illinois Food Bank, we know that about a third of the folks we’re serving are kids,” she said. “They desperately need the nutrition and the access to three square meals a day, but they also have no control over whether or not they’re going to receive those.”
Yurko says the senior population also is particularly susceptible to food insecurity. About nine percent of the people Northern Illinois Food Bank serves are 65 or older.
The food bank operates by reaching out to retailers and manufacturers and asking them to donate any food they would otherwise get rid of.
“It’s the bruised apple at the grocery store or the dented can,” she explained, “or it’s a product that, perhaps the humidity is slightly off, and so quality control says you can’t put that to market.”
That added up to 80 million pounds of food last year, Yurko says, or 65.5 million meals.
Yurko says people return to the food pantry an average of eight times a year for assistance, and they rely less on the pantry if they have year-round, full-time employment. People whose health is compromised tend to be more reliant on the pantry for constant support.
“One of the things we find for those who are either living in poverty or are food insecure is that there usually also is some kind of health issue going on,” Yurko noted. “In northern Illinois, when we look at the neighbors we serve, we know that more than half of them have someone with high blood pressure, and a quarter of our families have someone with diabetes.”
Food insecurity does not always mean having no access to food. Food deserts often have convenience stores offering processed, ready-to-eat foods.
Savannah Peters, a graduate dietetic intern at Northern Illinois University, says these kinds of foods often pose significant health risks when eaten regularly.
“When you have foods that are so heavily processed -- like the ready-to-eat foods and the microwave dinners -- they’re loaded with sodium because they’re designed to keep for a while,” she explained. “You can have one frozen dinner, and that’s going to equal the amount of sodium that you need in one day; and, when you have excess sodium, that can lead to things like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.”
Peters says heavily processed foods also tend to be higher in sugar — which increases the risk for diabetes — and trans fats, which can lead to heart disease and hypertension.
Peters says she’s has been in the position of not having good access to food.
“During my undergraduate career, I didn’t have a car on campus, and the closest thing to me was a Dollar General,” she recalled. “So I would go, and they had dollar bags of frozen fruit and vegetables in cans. I found myself having to do that. And that’s completely fine. I think there’s a big misconception in our society that you have to have to have fresh veggies.”
She says people who need to buy food from convenience stores should look for options without added salt or sugar and no hydrogenated oils.
“If you cannot find a low-sodium or 100% fruit juice option, just get the regular kind,” Peters said, “and, if you put it in a colander and run it under cold water, that’s going to get rid of excess salt and sugar.”
Dan Kenney, director of the DeKalb County Community Gardens, a non-profit that grows and donates organic vegetables, says shelf-stable foods often can be the drawback of community food-assistance organizations.
“Our food pantries are really valuable, and it’s really important that we have them,” he said. “However, unfortunately, they’re kind of set up to have food that’s been highly processed, so it’s lower in nutrition. Then we have this double effect of low-income (people) having lack of access to food; but then, when you do have access to food, it’s not healthy food.”
Kenney says the northwest neighborhood of DeKalb is one of the area’s most predominant food deserts.
“That’s one of our most-populated areas of the city of DeKalb and, at the same time, it only has convenience stores,” Kenney said. “Also, there’s very limited public transportation in that area.”
He added that the northwest corner of DeKalb County -- made up of rural communities like Kirkland, Fairdale and Kingston -- also is affected by food insecurity.
The DeKalb County Community Gardens solution is GrowMobile, a 14-foot refrigerated bus that delivers fresh produce to DeKalb County food deserts. Kenney says the GrowMobile has distributed more than 20,000 pounds of food this year, most of which – “broccoli, potatoes, onions, peas, various beans, beets, lettuce, kale, collard greens” -- came directly from the DeKalb County Community Gardens.
But Kenney says increasing a person’s intake of healthy foods isn’t as simple as providing them fresh produce.
“As a society, we’ve become very dependent on boxed and highly processed foods, so we’re used to cooking from boxes and cans and not that used to actually using fresh vegetables,” he said. “So there has to be an education component to increasing the access to fresh foods. It has to also instruct people on how to prepare it, how to use it, how to store it.”
Kenney says one big misconception he’s noticed is the belief that people who suffer from food insecurity get that way because they’re not working hard enough.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many people who are working and doing the best they can to try to earn as much money as they can,” he said, “but they don’t earn enough, even though they might be working two jobs.”
Kenney says that stricter qualifications for governmental nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called “food stamps,” or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program leave more and more people without a place to turn.
Like the Northern Illinois Food Bank, GrowMobile helps a large number of seniors and children affected by food insecurity. But Kenney says another population stands out in DeKalb.
“We have a high need in the student population -- especially of students who have come here from other countries to study -- because their student visas won’t allow them to them to work,” he said, “so they’re totally dependent on what they get in the way of aid.”
Current NIU students living off-campus without a campus meal plan are eligible for another form of assistance: the Huskie Food Pantry, which opened in 2014 in response to students’ concerns about affording and acquiring food.
Huskie Food Pantry Director Jill Zambito says students need very basic items: pasta, canned beans and tuna -- even toilet paper and feminine-hygiene products.
She says that agencies which supply food to the pantry often can’t believe this issue exists at NIU.
“They can’t believe that university students would have food insecurities,” Zambito said. “I think the perception is that, if you’re going to a university or a college, you have access to money. That’s just not the case any more.”
She says it’s important for people to reframe their thinking on the resources available to college students, because the demographics have changed drastically. Her goal is to allow students to focus on their adult lives and studies without worry.
“We’re not just looking at 18-year-olds,” Zambito said. “So many of our students are non-traditional, and that can mean they have family responsibilities or they’re working so many hours a week.”
The Huskie Food Pantry tries to destigmatize students’ need to seek help by creating a retail shopping experience, Zambito says. “It’s a pantry by choice, so students can come in and select the items they need. We don’t dictate what they can take by any means.”
The pantry is open only Thursday evenings, but Zambito says they hope to expand that in the future.
Julie Yurko, of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, also says her organization will continue to work to close the meal gap in northern Illinois. She says a long-term goal is to get people to be self-sufficient. But for now?
“We work in today,” she said. “We work in ‘How do I make sure that I have full bellies every night?’”
The USDA has created a Food Access Research Atlas that maps four aspects of food insecurity. Users can zoom in on specific areas and see where food deserts exist near them.