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Lt. Gov. Stratton Talks Food Access And Equity With Midwest Food Bank

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton talks with Midwest Food Bank COO and CFO Eric Hodel during a visit to the Normal facility on Tuesday.
Dana Vollmer
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton talks with Midwest Food Bank COO and CFO Eric Hodel during a visit Tuesday to the Normal facility.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn't over, and neither is the increased community need for food.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton visited the Midwest Food Bank (MFB) in Normal on Tuesday to discuss the continuing challenge of food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Stratton said state data show food insecurity has more than doubled in Illinois since COVID hit. She said the situation is far worse for some of the most vulnerable populations.

“Food insecurity has tripled for Illinois households with children, and our state has seen a 60% increase in food insecurity for seniors. That means that right this second, people are going hungry in Illinois—some utilizing food banks for the very first time,” Stratton said. “And we know that food insecurity particularly plagues women and children, especially women and children of color and those in our rural communities.”

Like food assistance providers around the state and country, MFB has seen a lot of new faces over the past year and a half. Eric Hodel, Midwest Food Bank's chief operating and chief financial officer, said MFB distributed more than $100 million worth of food to about 800 food pantries last year. Even as the COVID pandemic eases, Hodel said those agencies are still seeing high demand.

“People would come to our front door and be looking for food. Again, we don't serve individuals—we serve agencies. But it told me that those people were new and they were just trying to figure it out. Now granted, we took care of them and we connected them with an agency. But I could see that foot traffic increased quite a bit.”

Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton with Midwest Food Bank's Eric Hodel and Jada Hoerr.
Dana Vollmer
Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton with Midwest Food Bank's Eric Hodel and Jada Hoerr.

Hodel said people are trying to make tradeoffs: do they pay their utility bills or their rent, or do they purchase food? The food bank industry addresses that need by offering meals and ingredients at no cost—a model that relies on the generosity of donors, volunteers and business partners.

Stratton said generosity has been in high supply during the pandemic and she’s hopeful the sense of community will continue.

“There's always going to be a need for support from government, from philanthropy and from other organizations, corporate sponsors and so forth. But there's nothing I think that's more powerful that we've seen during this pandemic than what it means for people to come together and say, ‘Let's help one another out’ at a time when so many were struggling,” Stratton said.

Stratton said food insecurity is emblematic of much more than hunger: it’s about justice, equity and access to opportunity.

Earlier this year, the Pritzker administration launched a food equity road map. Stratton said it includes steps like making it easier for people to apply for nutrition programs and strengthening collaboration between state agencies and community partners to help enroll people in free or discounted food programs.

Stratton said the next step is rolling out a two-year initiative to enhance equity in agriculture by removing barriers for urban farmers and supporting growers of color.

“I think about my role in agriculture. I am a descendant of formerly enslaved people four generations out who worked the land, who were farmers in Mississippi,” Stratton said. “Over time, we have seen fewer farmers of color who have been a part of the agricultural industry—and it's not just farmers, those working the land, but the industry as a whole.”

Stratton said there’s room for more diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in all areas of agriculture, from law and communications to marketing and research.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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