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Food bank to help the hungry with new facility

Deborah Smith and sons Logan, 9, and Patrick, 11, of Hanover Park, celebrate the opening of the Northern Illinois Food Bank's Community Nutrition and Food Distribution Center in Geneva. The family found itself in need of food from an area pantry when Smith and her husband lost their jobs. (Melissa Jenco/Tribune)

Deborah Smith and sons Logan, 9, and Patrick, 11, of Hanover Park, celebrate the opening of the Northern Illinois Food Bank's Community Nutrition and Food Distribution Center in Geneva. The family found itself in need of food from an area pantry when Smith and her husband lost their jobs. (Melissa Jenco/Tribune)

Deborah Smith never thought she would struggle to put food on the table for her two sons.

But when the Hanover Park woman and her husband both lost their jobs, that scenario became her reality.

“It became a situation of eat or pay the bills,” Smith said.

Because they earned too much in unemployment, the family of four did not qualify for food stamps, and eventually had no choice but to turn to the Wayne Township Food Pantry for help. The volunteers at the pantry, she said, not only provided sustenance, but moral support.

“You go in there and you’re upset and you’re frustrated because you can’t pay your bills, you can’t buy food, you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from,” she said. “And you go in there and you have happy smiling faces, you have (people saying) ‘Let us know what we can do for you, we will help you out as much as we can, and here’s some food while we’re at it.’”

The Smiths are among the thousands of families turning to local food pantries as the economy continues to flounder. The Northern Illinois Food Bank says it will be able help more of those families than ever before as it opens its new Community Nutrition and Food Distribution Center at 273 Dearborn Court in Geneva.

On Tuesday, the food bank celebrated the new facility that Pete Schaefer, president and CEO, said doubles or even triples the capacity of its St. Charles facility. Gone are the days of having to reject food there wasn’t room for, or watching food go bad when there wasn’t space in the freezer.

The new, 140,000-square-foot building features significant storage space for dry goods, large refrigerator and freezer space, 14 docks (up from nine), a special room for safely handling bulk products, office space, conference rooms and a Community Nutrition Center for cooking classes.

(PHOTOS: Food bank celebrates new facility.)

The building also is designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold standards and has an HVAC system that uses hot air exhaust to heat the warehouse, recycled materials throughout the office floors and ceilings, lights regulated by motion sensors, and bike racks and showers to encourage biking to work.

The building, land and construction cost a total of about $19 million that is being paid for through donations and municipal bonds issued by Geneva, which the food bank will repay. It was designed by Rockford Associates and constructed by Ryan Companies.

“This building represents a community coming together, all of you — our donors, our volunteers, our staff, our partner agencies,” Schaefer said. “It represents all of you coming together to attack this problem.”

The food bank distributes food to 600 agencies in 13 counties and distributed the equivalent of 29 million meals in fiscal year 2011. A study by Feeding America found that 12.5 percent of the people in that 13-county area are in need of food.

Juanita Martinez, director of general assistance for the Wayne Township Food Pantry, said she has seen the need grow significantly over the years.

“Hardworking people who never thought they’d be struggling to feed their families are now seeking our help,” she said. “Many have lost their homes, they are frustrated and ashamed…The reality is these hardworking men and women who have always provided for themselves are the face of hunger today.”

State Sen. John Millner, R-Carol Stream, is a longtime volunteer and applauded the more than 10,000 others who also give their time to area pantries. He and other members of the General Assembly gave the food bank a plaque Tuesday in recognition of the new facility.

Millner also told the crowd about giving out food in a parking lot where 300 people were lined up in the cold and snow, desperate to receive food. On another day he watched as more than 100 stood in the pouring rain.

“This is here, this is here in our area,” he said.

Knowing that all too well, Smith said she hopes things are looking up for her family as her husband recently found a job. She said she is grateful to have had the support of the food bank and plans to start volunteering there herself.

“I’m really really happy we can start giving back,” she said.

The food bank is still in need of donations for its new facility as well as volunteers. For information, visit www.northernilfoodbank.org, or call 630-443-6910.

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