Million-meal milestone reached by Volunteers and 4-H Feeding & Growing Our Communities initiative

By Judy Mae Bingman

URBANA, Ill. - Across the state, one event at a time, Illinois 4-H members and volunteers are dedicating energy, time, and money to creating more food-secure communities where they live. On April 4, Illinois 4-H passed a major milestone, providing more than one million meals to families as part of the 4-H Feeding & Growing Our Communities initiative.

The efforts began humbly in November 2013, said Bill Million, University of Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist. 4-H members evaluate the hunger issues in their local communities and develop strategies to meet the challenges.

One of those strategies has been sponsorship of meal-packaging events. Illinois 4-H works with Illini Fighting Hunger, a U of I student group operated out of Wesley Foundation in Urbana.

“4-H club members purchase bulk ingredients, then measure to fill family-size packages of the soy-based casserole meals,” Million said. “The meals are distributed to local food pantries and service organizations to be distributed to families in need.”

The ingredients cost about 14 cents per meal, and 4-H clubs hosting a meal-packaging event must raise funds to cover the cost of the meals they package. Up to $750 is provided to groups by the Illinois 4-H Foundation.

On April 4, the efforts of volunteers from Cass, Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Calhoun counties added to the 50 previous meal-packaging events to push the group over the one-million-meal mark. Local 4-H member Anne Becker coordinated the effort. This was the second event Anne has coordinated with assistance from the Morgan County 4-H Federation. They raised more than $1,500 to purchase the ingredients and received an additional $1,500 in grants from the Illinois 4-H Foundation and Evelyn Brandt Thomas.

Food access is a major initiative of Illinois 4-H. “In Illinois one in five children face hunger weekly,” Million said. “Children struggle to learn if they are hungry.”

In addition to packaging meals, 4-H clubs sponsor a variety of hunger activities. More than 22,000 pounds of produce with a value of $39,000 has been grown and donated to food pantries from 60 4-H gardens. Youth in Hamilton County 4-H had a bumper crop, donating more than 2,500 pounds of produce to local food pantries during the 2017 growing season.

Many gardens are tended by residents in the communities of most need. “It is a joy to watch a garden grow,” said a 4-H volunteer from the Bountiful Kids 4-H Club in Peoria County. “But I think the bigger joy was in donating the vegetables we worked hard to tend,” she said. “Experiences like these will nourish these children to become giving adults.”

Washington County 4-H teens have addressed food deserts by creating mobile food pantries in their communities. In 2017, 79 4-H teens distributed 35 tons of produce, from potatoes and apples to eggs and cereal. The teens sort and bag food provided by St. Louis Food Bank trucks. As families arrive, 4-H Hunger Ambassadors distribute the bags.

“Understanding the need and contributing to the solution builds character and promotes a generous spirit,” said Amanda Fox, Washington County Extension 4-H program coordinator. Mobile pantries serve about 100 families monthly.

In some counties, 4-H members gather food donations to fill weekend backpacks for children to take home. In other communities, food packs are given to elderly residents. Food pantries often lack the simple ingredients for a birthday celebration, so 4-H members around the state went into party mode in 2017. Clubs in Warren, Henderson, Kendall, DuPage, Kane, Peoria, Macoupin, Grundy, Franklin, Tazewell, and Monroe counties prepared more than 760 birthday bags and distributed them to local pantries and helping agencies.

The bags included everything needed for a birthday celebration — cake mix, frosting, candles, hats, toys, party supplies, birthday cards, plates, napkins, balloons, candy, and party favors.

In Rock Island County, 4-H Hunger Ambassadors plan, prepare, and serve community meals each month. The grassroots effort empowers youth to understand hunger in their local community, then tailor a plan to their community’s needs.

The life lessons 4-H members gain may equal the life-saving food their efforts provide, said a Hardin County Corn Fed Clovers club leader. “The 4-H Feeding and Growing Our Communities garden not only produced vegetables for community members in need; it also produced kids with a new outlook on how they can be caring citizens.”

The largest packaging event was held November 4, 2017 in Ullin, representing the counties of Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union. More than 350 volunteers packaged 101,200 meals in five hours. Kristi Stout, U of I Extension 4-H youth development educator, credits numerous partner organizations for motivating their volunteers in the massive hunger-fighting initiative.

More than 7,800 4-H youth and adults have volunteered over 45,000 hours of service to improve access to healthy food in their Illinois communities over the past four years. Illinois 4-H clubs have raised $65,000 local funds to help families in need, providing food to 389 food pantries.