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Turkeys fly through Fox Valley

'This is blessing' says Mary Pope North Auror'I wouldn't ehalf time if it wasn't for these guys' who gets help

"This is a blessing," says Mary Pope of North Aurora, "I wouldn't eat half the time if it wasn't for these guys," who gets help loading Thanksgiving food from volunteer Suzan Sanchez at the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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How to give

Both the Northern Illinois Food Bank and the agencies it serves are constantly seeking donations of food, money and time.

“We would just love the community to get involved in any way they feel comfortable,” said Donna Lake of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. “Whether it’s money — which we can make go really far — or food they have, or helping us repack the food going out to pantries, we’re really grateful for all of it.”

Some things to keep in mind:

When donating food: Both the Northern Illinois Food Bank and Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry have freezers and coolers for perishable items, but not all pantries do. Call ahead to ask about bringing items such as produce and meat. The Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry is looking for donations of cereal in particular. “We’re always short of cereal. We give out about 1,000 boxes a week,” Executive Director Marilyn Weisner said. “It’s great because kids can make it for themselves for breakfast or an afternoon snack, so it’s easy and nutritious.”

Donate money: Because it buys in bulk, the Northern Illinois Food Bank does far better than the average coupon clipper. “One dollar provides six meals,” Lake said. “We’re able to stretch every donation to feed as many hungry people as possible.” Pantries and soup kitchens rely on monetary donations, too, to keep the lights on and the doors open. “A food pantry is a not-for-profit business, so we do have expenses,” Weisner said. “There are telephone costs, rent. We have a van and insurance and gas. All the different little expenses like letterhead and thank-you notes help us to be able to distribute food.” Monetary donations to individual pantries also, of course, buy food at low cost from the food bank.

To volunteer: Both the Northern Illinois Food Bank and individual pantries need volunteers to sort and repackage food. To inquire about volunteering, or to donate, call or visit their websites:

Northern Illinois Food Bank: 630-443-6910 or

Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry: 630-897-2127 or

Loaves and Fishes of Naperville: 630-355-3663 or

FISH Food Pantry of Carpentersville: 847-428-4357

South Elgin Food Pantry at Community United Methodist Church: 847-931-0563

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Updated: December 28, 2011 8:09AM

A line of cars snaked down South River Street for nearly half a mile Monday morning, in what was probably the most jovial traffic delay Aurora had ever seen. Drivers waited patiently; some pulled up to the vehicle in front of them to chat with others in line. With the unseasonably warm weather and no need to run the heat, many turned their vehicles off and waited patiently.

At the front of the line, Marilyn Weisner, executive director of the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry, controlled the well-managed chaos of delivering 1,300 turkey dinners to families in need, checking in clients and shouting instructions across the food pantry’s parking lot to other volunteers.

“We have to get these people out of the cold,” said Weisner, directing volunteers to start attending to the growing line of clients who had walked or taken the bus to the pantry to collect their turkeys, cranberry sauce and potatoes.

Thirty volunteers directed traffic, checked in clients, organized and moved boxes and crates of food, and loaded thousands of pounds of Thanksgiving meals into the back seats, trunks, arms — even wheelchairs — of Aurorans who took the food back to their families for the Thanksgiving table.

“It’s a huge project,” said Weisner. “We start at about 7 in the morning, and we’re done around 5 each day.”

“Huge” is really an understatement. The Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry, and the dozens of other food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens around the Fox Valley that distributed meals to families in need this Thanksgiving, and that will do it all over again this Christmas — have been preparing for months, calculating need and stockpiling essentials to make sure there’s a bird in every pot this holiday season.

Northern Illinois Food Bank

Once it leaves the farm and processing plant, the charitable turkey begins its journey at the spectacularly large warehouse of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. The new, custom-built facility in Geneva is designed to move food to those in need as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that leftovers from retailers and food manufacturers can be recovered and feed as many as 60,000 people every week throughout the year.

“For Thanksgiving, we actually buy all the turkeys,” said Donna Lake, director of communication for the food bank. “The holiday meal boxes are special this time of year, and that is food we’ve purchased in bulk to ensure we have enough for everybody. From the beginning of November through the end of the year, we’ll distribute 30,700 holiday meals across 13 counties.”

Throughout the year, food typically comes to the Northern Illinois Food Bank from a variety of sources. The food bank partners with major area retailers and manufacturers for food recovery programs — grabbing perishable items such as meat, produce and bread just before their sell-by dates expire, then using highly efficient logistics to get them to the tables of needy families before they spoil. Corporate donations and items individuals give through food drives account for roughly 60 percent of the food that feeds those in need.

The food bank also serves as a distribution center for federal government commodities programs, which comprise about 20 percent of its stock.

The remaining 20 percent of food, such as the turkeys, is purchased in bulk at rates far lower than shoppers find in stores.

“We had a freezer full of turkeys for a while,” Lake said. “We buy them so that we can schedule them to come in waves. They take up a lot of space; and with that many, we have to purchase them to make sure we have enough.”

Other holiday items — boxes of stuffing mix and cans of cranberry sauce — get stockpiled as they come in, squirreled away in a corner for the holiday season. When the time comes, volunteers begin assembling the holiday boxes.

“This year, it was a 5-pound bag of fresh potatoes, the frozen turkey, stuffing mix, canned vegetables, coffee, desserts — everything you would need to create a family holiday meal,” Lake said. It’s designed to leave about eight people with that content holiday feeling of needing to loosen the belt a bit.

Then it becomes a logistical maze. Fourteen semis deliver food Monday through Friday across 7,000 square miles from the Indiana state line clear through Rockford to more than 600 food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and after-school and senior citizen food programs.

“The agencies order off a shopping list three days in advance. They pick food off the menu, it gets put on a pallet, we shrink-wrap it, put their agency’s name on it so it doesn’t get lost, and take it to the agencies so they can distribute it to people in need in their communities,” Lake said.

At the pantry

And that was the scene on River Street in Aurora come Monday morning.

“Long before that, we watch the shopping lists at the food bank so we can start stocking up at good prices and set those holiday items aside,” Weisner said. “We also order the turkey boxes in the middle of October and try to guess how many people are going to come.”

At $15 a box, they’re a great deal. But with so many families in need, the cost really adds up. The Aurora pantry had to secure $18,000 in underwriting from community donors to bring Thanksgiving to the table.

Once ordered, the turkeys are delivered on a schedule so they can stay frozen.

“We pay a nominal delivery fee to the food bank, so we had 800 delivered Monday morning and the rest Tuesday,” said Weisner. “It’s cold enough, so we just leave them outside.”

The room in the pantry’s small walk-in freezer was reserved for the cream pies brought in by another donor.

The pantry also had to recruit almost 30 volunteers to check people in and load cars with food on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

“I’m the bread lady,” said volunteer Michele Betzinger, as she moved pallets of bread and various buns in the parking lot of the Aurora food pantry. “I like helping, and we’ll do the same thing at Christmas, only then it will be cold. But it’s worth it to see these people get the stuff they need.”

Other volunteers loaded bags of potatoes and bunches of bananas. As another car pulled up and popped open the trunk, the two friends inside squealed with surprise at the two turkeys and the rest of the bounty volunteer Bill Bonamo loaded up.

“I used to stay at Hesed House (an Aurora homeless shelter), and now I’m here giving back,” Bonamo said in between armloads of potatoes. “It’s nice to give back something I already got.”

On the table

Thanks to the efforts of the food pantries, more than 30,000 families across the Fox Valley sat down to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings this Thanksgiving.

But the numbers of those in need are increasing, pantry staff said.

“It’s really become most dramatic in the last few months — the number of folks we serve has gone up dramatically,” said Rev. Jan Comerford of Community United Methodist Church of South Elgin, which operates a food pantry.

And the type of folks the South Elgin pantry serves also has changed dramatically. Contrary to the usual “stereotype of what folks look like when they come to the food pantry,” she said, the church is seeing more parents and grandparents who have some income but need food assistance.

“Hunger has become a much broader issue for the greater Elgin Area,” she said. “Those old assumptions about who the hungry are don’t apply anymore.”

That’s also the picture in Aurora, where Weisner said the pantry distributed turkey boxes to about 225 clients who are new to the food bank this year.

“There are all kinds of reasons people need assistance,” she said. “They lost a job, or there’s an illness. Even a divorce, when there are suddenly two households to keep up instead of one. A turkey dinner is expensive. It really breaks your budget. Sure, you’ll have leftover, turkey sandwiches and so on, but you’re not going to get through the week.”

And so, in a month, they’ll do it all over again.

As clients came to pick up turkeys from the FISH (Friend I Shall Help) Food Pantry in Carpentersville, they also picked up one more important item: a green and red ticket for their Christmas ham.

Staff writer Emily McFarlan contributed to this story.

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