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'People need help more than ever,' Illinois Commission to End Hunger told

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2011 - The hungry in East St. Louis are in "survival mode," according to community service leaders and residents who attended a Monday hearing before the newly formed Illinois Commission to End Hunger.

Food assistance targeted at children and seniors is often shared by several generations of family members living in the same household, said Vera Jones, education and youth development director of the Mary Brown Center, which hosted the hearing. In other cases, Link Cards -- the debit cards issued by the state in lieu of food stamps -- might be sold or traded for rent or to pay utility bills.

Jones said that poverty in the city has been compounded by the recession and an unemployment rate higher than the national average.

Unemployment in the city jumped to nearly 17 percent this summer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Workers with limited job skills are now competing with high school and college graduates for positions that require only minimal education, Jones noted, adding that low academic scores of the city's schoolchildren go hand-in-hand with hunger -- and contribute to the never-ending cycle of poverty.

"You cannot learn if you're distracted by the sound of your stomach," she said.

The community center has always provided snacks for children participating in its after-school study programs but has been working to expand that effort to include sandwiches and more complete meals, Jones said.

The Illinois Commission to End Hunger was established last year by the state legislature and charged with developing a two-year action plan to reduce hunger in the state. In March, Gov. Pat Quinn appointed community leaders and legislators to serve as commissioners. The commission is visiting eight cities around the state as part of a fact-finding tour.

Marla Goodwin, the director of Jeremiah's Food Pantry in Centreville, serves on the hunger commission. The pantry, which is open one day a week, was started three years ago as a community outreach effort of Jeremiah Baptist Church. Though the pantry's original goal was to serve nearby residents in need, Goodwin said it now serves between 80 and 100 people each week, including people from outlying communities who have heard that they can get help -- no questions asked.

"We turn no one away," Goodwin said. "No matter who you are or where you live, our pantry gives freely to anyone who comes to our door."

Inez Boykins, who volunteers at Jeremiah's, said she attended the hearing because she wanted to send a message about the importance of government-sponsored food-assistance programs and private efforts, such as church-run pantries and the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

"People really need help more than ever now," Boykins said.

Several speakers noted that they are particularly concerned about the plight of the elderly.

Joy Paeth of the Area Agency on Aging in Southwestern Illinois said that 11.4 percent of all seniors in the U.S. experience some form of food insecurity, often exacerbated by poor health and transportation difficulties.

She echoed the concerns of other speakers who said that aid intended for seniors often ends up helping other family members who are financially desperate.

"What we see in East St. Louis are seniors who are sharing their Link Cards and home-delivered meals with whole families," Paeth said.

She also stressed the importance of improving the overall health of community residents who tend to suffer disproportionately from diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.