Farm Fresh Perspectives: Local soup kitchen fights for food security

I have brought up the concept of “community food security” in past columns and through involvement in the Rockford & Four Rivers Food Security Summit held earlier this year. At this event, we had many folks from Rockford and the surrounding region show up to discuss the food issues they considered to be of utmost importance, including genetic engineering, state and federal food policy, small farm sustainability, improving children’s diets, and food access for underserved communities.

Well, I thought many of you might like to hear about folks in our community who have taken the fight against food insecurity past the concept stage and started to face the challenge head-on, as well as where they plan to go from here.

Concord “College” is a collaborative outreach effort at the Concord Commons housing complex on West State and Elm in Rockford; it is supported by the Rockford Housing Authority, the Northwest Community Center and Northern Illinois University. The staff at Concord College has worked to create a twice-weekly “soup kitchen” at which they prepare bagged lunches and provide them to needy community members at no charge.

With donations from the Hunger Connection at Northern Illinois Food Bank, Panera Bread and Pizza Hut, Concord College has been able to triple attendance from around 38 participants per soup kitchen day in April to more than 100 participants per day in June. Many of the participants are residents at Concord Commons, but soup kitchen staffers have continued to see increasing interest from other parts of town, and are excited to be addressing a pressing need in the community.

It’s hard to tell how many of these people and their families would have gone without a meal at all without the assistance of Concord College. It makes me wonder how many more people in our community still need help.

Still, coordinators at the Concord College soup kitchen still see room for growth and improvement. They would like to expand their offerings to include a larger selection of local, fresh and healthy products. Julie Getter, staff of Concord College and president of the Concord Commons Residential Council, said, “Residents of this community have very limited access to fresh, nutritious produce.” That which is available from nearby retailers tends to be of lower quality than what is available in other parts of the city.

Getter added: “We have been speaking with a neighboring retailer to arrange a deal through which one or more local farmers could supply the store with produce, and, in turn, provide much greater access to this healthy food for our residents. Now, we just need to find a farmer.”

Growers looking for such an opportunity are encouraged to contact Julie Getter at 926-2303 or or Deb Alfredson, Concord College Outreach coordinator, at 962-2301 or

Market growers, even if you are not geared up to take on a commitment such as supplying a store with fresh produce, there are still ways you can be involved in helping to support underserved communities in our area. For instance, if you sell at a farmers’ market, and you have produce leftover at the end of the market day, consider donating your extra to Plant a Row for the Hungry rather than simply taking it home to the compost bin. Plant a Row for the Hungry is a University of Illinois Extension-sponsored program that collects produce at the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays, the Main Street Square Farmers’ Market in Roscoe on Thursdays and at Klehm Arboretum, the Rock River Valley Food Pantry on Short Elm Street, and University of Illinois Extension office on West State Street, Monday through Friday. There are also many locations outside of Winnebago County, so contact your local Extension office. Your donation will benefit a variety of local food pantries and soup kitchens.

Farmers’ market vendors might also want to consider accepting food coupons at their booth. This is a major step in improving needy people’s access to fresh, nutritious food they may not otherwise be able to get. Talk to your market manager about the possibility of accepting purchases through WIC, Link and other food assistance programs.

Of course, you do not have to be a commercial grower to assist the food-insecure in our community. Even if you are just a home gardener, donate your extra zucchini and tomatoes at the peak of the season to a soup kitchen, a food pantry or Plant a Row for the Hungry. Better yet, set aside a portion of your garden specifically for donation to a local organization that supplies the needs of food-insecure folks in your area. And don’t forget, even if you aren’t a farmer or gardener, food pantries and soup kitchens are usually more than happy to accept a monetary donation to assist their day-to-day expenses. Deb Alfredson said, “A donation of $50 to the Concord College soup kitchen will assist in feeding upwards of 250 people.” A pretty good return on the investment, I’d say.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the June 28-July 4, 2006, issue

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