A mobile food pantry at a Joliet senior housing complex on Friday September 29th was there to address the lack of access to healthy food due to a recent grocery store closing. And the Will County Health Department’s Medical Reserve Corps, Senior Services of Will County, and the Northern Illinois Food Bank teamed up to make it all happen.
Since the closing of Certified Foods on Richards Street earlier this year, the 60433 zip code in Joliet has been considered a “food desert;” a common phrase for areas that experience a lack of access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. And quite often, food desert situations hit the elderly the hardest.
This mobile food pantry on the 29th, from 9:30 AM to 12 Noon, took place at the Joshua Arms housing complex at 1315 Rowell Avenue. Will County Senior Services Director Barry Kolanowski said the event fed about 150 Joshua Arms seniors, providing many of them with enough food for a week.
“This all required three major players,” Kolanowski explained. “First, through our Case Management Program here at Senior Services, we already see the challenges these residents face when it comes to food and nutrition, especially at the end of the month. Second, we needed Presence St. Joseph Medical Center’s help to assist with the purchase of the food through the Northern Illinois Food Bank. It’s great that Presence sees this as part of their mission. And third, we needed volunteers to help distribute the food.”
Kolanowski credited his attendance at a recent Will County MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships) Collaborative meeting for really getting the ball rolling. “So many key people were there,” Kolanowski recalled, “that all I had to do was express my concern for the Joshua Arms seniors out loud. Before I knew it, Northern Illinois Food Bank was contacted about bringing a load of food to the Joshua Arms parking lot, Presence St. Joseph was offering to pay for the food, and the Will County Health Department’s Medical Reserve Corps volunteers were offering to work the event.”
That third aspect, the volunteers, is where the Health Department’s Medical Reserve Corps came in. This volunteer group, for adults of all ages, helps to increase awareness of emergency preparedness, as well as how to respond to public health emergencies such as a lack of proper food and nutrition. MRC unit coordinator Barbara Agor says this mobile food pantry is definitely part of the MRC’s mission. “We’re all about helping our community in any way we can,” Agor explained.
Agor also pointed out that the MRC is very ideal for residents just starting out or aspiring for careers in the medical field, or retirees looking to stay involved. But more than anything, it’s for people 18 and older who simply “want to help the community become a safer and healthier place. No medical background is required. All you need is to care about your community.”
The Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Jennifer Nau said food for seniors is certainly a big part of the bank’s mission. “Food for seniors is not just a priority, it’s a very high need. We need to remember that seniors are often not as mobile as the rest of us, and then you have ‘the pride factor.’ Perhaps they’ve been self-sustaining their entire lives, but now they just cannot make ends meet; especially when you throw in medication costs.”
Kolanowski said that bringing the food right to Joshua Arms was definitely a major factor. “Most of us think of ‘just buying food.’ But for seniors the major problem is often ‘getting to the food.’ Then, there’s the social aspect. For a lot of these residents, just being here for them meant the world.”
Joshua Arms Property Manager Mary Jensen agreed. “We had a lot of residents who hardly come out of their apartments more than once a month sign up for this. It meant so much, especially at the end of the month when they are maybe waiting for their next social security check.”
As for Northern Illinois Food Bank, they have now served more than 65 ½ million meals over the past year. And Nutrition Program Manager Amy Dyer pointed out that anyone who would like more information about their services can call 630-443-6910.
Meanwhile, the Will County Health Department is always accepting new volunteers into the Medical Reserve Corps. Anyone interested in joining the MRC unit should contact Barbara Agor at 815-727-8802.