Even in the midst of some of the most fertile farm land in the country, Jacqui Hebein had some sobering statistics about the state of food security in DeKalb County.
“We are in a food desert in most of DeKalb County,” Hebein, field representative for Northern Illinois Food Bank, said earlier this month. “Ninety-five-point-four percent of people who live in DeKalb County have low access to food.”
The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”
There are 14,083 people living below the federal poverty level in the county, Hebein told about 65 people from more than 30 different organizations at the DeKalb County Local Food Security Summit March 1 at the DeKalb County Community Foundation. The summit's participants hope to find ways to share ideas and resources to address the issues that contribute to food insecurity in the county.
“It really started with concern about how we could create an increased capacity to address this growing need,” said Lisa Cumings, community outreach liaison at Kishwaukee Community Hospital.
Many of the summit's participants have since formed a food security council that will meet regularly to address the issues of local hunger and food security.
"We want to serve as a forum for discussing the food issues among all the people who are providing food," said Dan Kenney, co-coordinator for DeKalb County Community Gardens and one of the organizers of the summit.
Providing a forum for sharing ideas and resources is one of the four main goals of the food security council. The other goals are coordinating sectors of the local food system, evaluating and influencing public policy and launching programs and services that address local needs.
Kenney noted that food pantries sometimes receive donations of more perishable food than they can distribute in a timely manner. He hopes that in such situations food providers will share food and transportation to avoid waste.
And while many organizations provide canned and prepared food during the week, he hopes to fix a gap in food distribution that exists on weekends.
"There is the issue that the last food pantry in the DeKalb-Sycamore area to be open in the week is Salvation Army. They close at, I think, 7 p.m. on Thursday, and the next food pantry doesn't open until Monday morning," Kenney said. "If you're trying to work and raise a family and provide enough food and you need to rely on food pantries, you have to schedule your whole life around it. It's not like some people who can just go to the grocery store when they want."
“Usually food councils look at issues that have to do with municipal policy that might hinder access to food or that might hinder people being able to produce their own food," Kenney said.
Some county residents face regulatory obstacles that might inhibit them from reaching food security, he said, such as local ordinances that forbid keeping bees and chickens within city limits.
"Some subdivisions have a policy where you can't even have a garden," Kenney said, recalling one family who was prohibited from building a raised bed garden in a subdivision where three neighbors' homes had been foreclosed.
Kenney is working with Kishwaukee Community Hospital and the University of Illinois Extension to educate residents about how to grow, prepare and store their own produce.
"The education aspect is really important, especially with the food pantries," said Cumings, who is also the hospital's liaison for the Live Healthy DeKalb County initiative. "How do you cook it? How do you prepare it? How do you store it?"
Kenney said that the council will work with the Extension to have recipes and tastings of vegetable dishes at the food pantries with the fresh vegetable that is available that day. Extension volunteers are also planning events during the growing season to teach people to can and preserve fresh produce.
Kenney is working with Northern Illinois University's Latino Studies Center to maintain a community garden at Conexion Comunidad in DeKalb and to bridge language barriers that may prevent Hispanic families from seeking assistance.
He is also trying to establish a mobile food pantry that could take perishable and nonperishable food to county residents to do not have adequate transportation.
For more information about the council, contact Kenney at 815-739-0950. To find emergency shelter or housing providers, contact the DeKalb County Community Services Department at 815-758-3910.