On April 13, after two years of forgoing the event due to the pandemic, United Way of Metro Chicago held the annual April Food Day event at the Tinley Park Convention Center. In all, more than 78,000 pounds of food was donated to distribute to 10 food pantries in our south and southwest suburban communities, along with $60,000 raised to support building a stronger, more equitable Chicago region.

Food donations were collected at the convention center, repackaged into boxes by more than 80 United Way and partner organization volunteers, and sent to the designated sites where community members in need will be able to access it.

Coinciding with the April Food Day food collection, there was an hour-and-a-half-long luncheon that highlighted and celebrated several Southland community leaders, corporate partners, and government officials who have been working tirelessly to confront food insecurity.

Awards honoring their commitment to the community this past year were presented to Mia Cross, director of community health and programs for Family Christian Health Center (Individual Leadership Award); Mi-Jack Products (Business Leadership Award); and Thornton Township (Community Leadership Award).

Our luncheon’s keynote speaker was the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the first Black person elected to the post. Speaker Welch spoke about his upbringing on Chicago’s South Side and the wide range of initiatives he’s spearheaded while in office, including prioritizing public safety and early education programs, reducing violent crime, and expanding tax credits for teachers buying classroom supplies.

Welch also touched on the far-reaching impacts of food insecurity and the importance of supporting residents in our south-southwest region. April Food Day donations will help to do just that – and each of the 10 pantries will distribute the food to our neighbors who need it the most.

One of those sites receiving food donations is the Pantry of Rich Township, in Richton Park, a Far South township. Odette Gueringer, the pantry director, could not overstate the importance of the pantry’s weekly food distributions for the surrounding communities.

“I saw a breakdown of the age groups we work with, and probably 45% are over 55 years old,” Gueringer said. “For seniors in our community living on social security, it’s invaluable. We’re told this all the time – this is how they make ends meet, coming to the pantry.”

In 2021 alone, the Pantry of Rich Township distributed 70 pounds of groceries to 5,500 individuals or families. Rich Township is not unique. The unprecedented need for food access worsened by the pandemic exists throughout the south-southwest region. In Ford Heights, Cornerstone Community Development Corporation—another pantry that received April Food Day donations—serves around 250 families every month, and this number continues to rise, according to Cornerstone CDC’s Food Services Manager Ester Viverette.

And in Tinley Park, Together We Cope keeps its doors open five days a week and sees nonstop clientele. The pantry serves individuals and families from 27 surrounding communities, totaling 3,000 individuals per month.

Our neighbors need support more than ever. Feeding America estimates that food insecurity in Cook County rose by 51% in 2020. Additionally, The Food Depository’s network of food pantries has seen visits increase, on average, by more than 50% and at times up to 150% during the pandemic. Due to systemic inequities, these statistics disproportionately affect Black and Latinx households.

Every dollar and pound of food donated helps to ensure our south-southwest neighbors—every person and family—have their basic needs met. This year’s April Food Day event was a strong reminder that together, we can make a difference.

Thank you to all of our attendees and sponsors, especially presenting sponsor Nicor Gas. Additionally, thanks to Aetna Better Health of Illinois and Meridian, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, and Christian Life Center, our media sponsor CBS 2 Chicago, and emcee Mugo Odigwe, news reporter for CBS 2.

View more photos from April Food Day 2022 here.

By Tate Samata, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalist