Smile Politely

10 ways to support the hungry in Champaign-Urbana

“Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow…”

In 1972, musician Bill Withers bought himself a Wurlitzer piano. He didn’t know how to play his new instrument, but he did know how to write music and mercifully simple lyrics. He sat down and crafted a tune that most of us could hum in our sleep, “Lean on Me”. He was homesick for the community he’d left in West Virginia, both the people and the emotional safety net they created as a group. What he wrote ended up at the top of the charts, and Bill said it was because it appealed to everyone. It was a soulful anthem for those who lived their lives helping others, and a melodic lesson in grace for those who needed it.

What are we here in Champaign-Urbana? In Illinois? Are we “Lean on Me” people? Or do we look the other way?

Let’s say you’re living in Champaign-Urbana and you’re poor. You are: a minimum-wage worker, a college student, a single parent, a disabled person, a veteran, a senior citizen, a person caught in the cycle of poverty, or a combination of these labels. You have hard decisions to make every month. And when things get really bad, there’s a feeling that punches you in the gut and clouds your brain‒hunger. If you don’t have food, you can’t function. You can’t think, you can’t react, you can’t plan, you can’t hope. Thousands of people in our community, including 20% of children, are living in poverty and food-insecurity. Thankfully, there are people in our community working very hard to fight this large enemy, and you can help them. Here are ten excellent ways to be a warrior against hunger:

1. Donate to the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen Renovation Fund.

The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen serves a hot lunch every day to over 200 guests. “The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen is truly a community,” says volunteer Karen Pickard, and “everyone is welcome.” Open for almost 40 years, and 100% volunteer-run, they offer food and help secure basics like state IDs. They are in the middle of a large fundraising campaign to renovate their own, permanent location at 118 South First Street. The building, which they recently bought after saving money for five years, will allow them to offer hot lunch every day of the week (currently they serve out of vans on the weekends) and expand their seating and storage, allowing them to serve more guests each day. But they can’t relocate until they renovate. Donate on the web, or mail a check to Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, P.O. Box 648, Champaign, IL 61824-0648.

2. Sign up to help with food distribution at the Wesley Food Pantry.

The Wesley Food Pantry has operated in the Wesley United Methodist Church on the U of I campus for nearly 10 years, and opened an additional location on Parkland’s campus two years ago. They stand out from other pantries by offering evening distribution (a must if you work and need food, which happens more than you’d think) and allowing clients to choose what they’d like, instead of pre-packed bags. “We think that clients know what works and doesn’t work for their family. It’s also an excellent way to cut down on food waste,” explains Volunteer Coordinator Brittany Coleman. Wesley is committed to maintaining each client’s dignity, and addressing the root causes of poverty while meeting the immediate need for food. Visit their volunteer sign-up page to assist with food sorting and distribution, and visit them on Tuesday, December 1st from 5:30-7:30pm for an All-You-Can-Eat-Pancake Dinner, because nothing says last month of the year/semester like eating a ridiculous amount of pancakes. Also, if you’re feeling a generosity binge coming on, or want an epic Black Friday challenge, they need a commercial fridge.

3. Spread the word about Newman Shares.

Opened in the fall of 2013, the student-led Newman Shares Food Pantry operates as a ministry of the Service and Justice Outreach of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on U of I’s campus. They serve apartment-dwelling students from U of I and Parkland, and, like Wesley, allow clients to pick their own food. Sister Maryann Schaefer added they serve, “not just food, but huge smiles and sweets.” They love and rely on monetary donations, food drives, and volunteers, and you can email them at [email protected] to pick up a time slot. There’s no need to be affiliated with the Catholic Church to assist or get food from this pantry, and they don’t inquire about your religion, though if you’re wondering, just what exactly would Jesus do? This.

4. Organize a group to serve dinner at Restoration Urban Ministries.

Restoration Urban Ministries offers programs, comprehensive services and temporary housing to clients. They welcome individuals and groups to sign up to prepare and serve a meal for their residents, tend their garden, and sort food in their food pantry, among other needs. If you have a burning desire to make dozens and dozens of brownies, and not eat them all yourself, this is your chance.

5. Sort food with Feeding our Kids.

Feeding our Kids is a two-year-old program that sends bags of food (discreetly placed in backpacks) home with food insecure children over the weekend and school breaks. They sort food most Wednesday afternoons and evenings and are always looking for helpers. Sign up to sort here. Alternatively, sponsor a child’s food for a full school year for just $100 and/or be an advocate for this organization with your school’s PTA and administration.

6. Attend the Parkland College Chamber Singers holiday performance and food drive.

The Parkland College Chamber Singers are singing all the holiday hits, and reciting a seasonal poem or two, on December 12th at 7pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign. Admission is one item of non-perishable food for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, but you can bring lots, lots more, if you’d like.

7. Sign up to serve or eat at Urbana High School’s Thanksgiving meal.

The 44th annual Thanksgiving meal sponsored by Urbana High School will be on Thanksgiving day from 5:00-7:00pm at Urbana Middle School. Everyone is welcome to this free meal, and it is especially for those who would otherwise be alone on Thanksgiving, like senior citizens and international students. Monetary donations and volunteers to help cook, serve and clean up, as well as to drive diners to and from UMS are always needed. For more information, call the Urbana High School’s Student Senate Office at 217-384-3505 ext. 4036.

8. Donate gardening labor, expertise or extra produce.
Support the successful and growing community gardens in Champaign–the Randolph Street Community Garden (run by Dawn Blackman, an inspiring advocate for social justice who also runs the emergency food assistance program at the Champaign Church of the Brethren) and Prosperity Gardens, a relatively new but gorgeous and bustling garden on north First Street. They do awesome things, like teach kiddos about growing food, and could always use volunteers and money. If you have extra produce, donate it directly to food pantries and homeless shelters through Sunshine Harvest Sharing, a unique program that makes it easy for individual gardeners to feed the hungry. And make sure to hit up Sola Gratia Farm’s stand at Urbana’s Market at the Square when it opens back up next spring–they donate a minimum of 10% of their yields to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.

9. Transport food for the Susan Freiburg Memorial Food Surplus Program.

Have you ever watched someone (perhaps yourself) dump a plate of leftover food in the trash? The act is sort of sickening when you think about about all the people who go hungry each day. Enter the Susan Freiburg Memorial Food Surplus Program. Local restaurants, dorms, and school districts donate leftover food to the Champaign-Urbana Coalition for the Homeless and they redistribute the food to shelters and soup kitchens. They need volunteers pick up food in provided FDA-approved containers.

10. Advocate! Agitate!

Sometimes the most far-reaching thing you can do is to talk. First, call your legislators and tell them to quit dicking around. The budget impasse is annoying to everybody, but devastating to impoverished families. Second, spout off to anyone and everyone you know about the realities facing people in poverty (and if you aren’t sure, research!). There’s a lot of bad information out there, and too many myths standing between those that have the power to help, and those that need it. So this Thanksgiving, take a gulp of wine (or gravy) for courage and have a real-talk session with a Mr. or Ms. Scrooge in your life. Remember, they think they’re on their own, but you know you’re in a community. Be brave. Lean on.

*Note: Wowza, that’s a lot of links, amiright? And there would’ve been more if I linked up to Facebook pages etc., but our eyes can only take so much red text, so… please look up and follow all these people on social media.

**And another thing: But what about all the other food pantries?? Here you go.

Cover image by Kate Ross; Newman shares photos courtesy of Sr. Maryann Schaefer; Wesley Food Pantry photo courtesy of Brittany Coleman; Daily Bread photo from its webpage. 

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