Public health recommendations are causing changes to many families’ Thanksgiving plans this year. But the pandemic also has had an impact on how area social service organizations distribute Thanksgiving meals to families struggling to keep food on the table.
Tory Dahlhoff brings us a report on how Peoria’s emergency food system is meeting the needs of residents this holiday season.
A giant garage door lifts open at the Midwest Food Bank facility in North Peoria where Hy-Vee Assistant Manager Scott Miller waits inside the loading bay, ready to pack Thanksgiving meal kits into the arriving vans of area service organizations.
“The Sheridan Village Hy-Vee and the Grand Prairie Hy-Vee donated 100 meals each,” said Miller. “The COVID pandemic is definitely affecting families, so we just want to take some of the pressure off and give people...a good holiday season.”
Along with Thanksgiving staples, Hy-Vee’s donation bags include a voucher for families to pick up a full turkey at one of their stores. Trevor Neff, the community impact director at Neighborhood House, said Hy-Vee’s donation will go to the families of the 150 children they traditionally serve in their onsite youth programs who, during the pandemic, have received daily hot meals by delivery.
“So this year we’ve been blessed with, OSF has donated turkeys for our pantries, and now we have these donations for our families, also,” said Neff.
The mission of food access programs at area social service organizations remains the same this holiday season as any time of the year: making sure those facing financial hardship can keep food on the table. But adapting to the pandemic has led to hard decisions for some.
South Side Mission Development Manager Rich Draeger said strained capacity due to the pandemic required a more focused service area for this year’s Thanksgiving meal program.
“That met with a little bit of dismay because we just simply couldn’t do it due to COVID and other reasons to some of the outlying areas,” he said. “So, we will probably end up doing around 2,500 meals this year where last year we probably did closer to 3,500.”
Draeger said the mission filled that gap through coordination with area churches and other partners who have stepped up to the plate.
A grassroots effort called the Peoria Mutual Aid Network also is hoping to fill a gap during this food-focused holiday by partnering with local startup meal kit business Upbeat Jams.
“People paid $20, that gave them two plates. You could donate both your plates to Mutual Aid, or you could keep one and donate the other,” said Alyssa McMillen, a coordinator for the network.
Organizers have received 40 meal donations so far and plan to distribute them within the network that currently assists 75 households with securing food and other essential resources.
Draeger said the ongoing pandemic also means community members should do more planning if they wish to volunteer during the holiday season at places like South Side Mission.
“You know it used to be someone could have conceivably shown up on the day of Thanksgiving or the day of a Christmas program and just volunteered, but unfortunately, due to COVID, we really can’t just have people show up,” Draeger said. “So check early and get signed up early.”
But that doesn’t mean support is not wanted, or needed. Peoria Area Food Bank manager Wayne Cannon stressed the importance of supporting area pantries and said to consider financial contributions when possible.
“If folks want to get involved, sometimes the pantries don’t have enough space for a lot of volunteers...but food pantries can definitely use more funding,” said Cannon. “If you do want to give, always start at the local pantry level.”
Another way to contribute can be through more conscious shopping during the holidays and as the region weathers the current surge in COVID-19 cases. Midwest Food Bank Executive Director Monica Scheuer said over-shopping in grocery stores was one of many things that led to a disruption in the emergency food system supply chain at the onset of the pandemic last spring.
“On average, we have five weeks of food on our shelves, and all of a sudden we went down to only 2 1/2 weeks of food on our shelves,” Scheuer said.
The ongoing pandemic also may mean some residents find themselves in need of food and other resource assistance for the first time ever.
Those who have recently lost work or income may be eligible to receive SNAP benefits through the Illinois Department of Human Services to supplement grocery expenses during the holidays. You also can find information on local resources by calling 211 or by visiting 211hoi.org.
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