SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. - South Barrington is known as one of the wealthiest suburbs in Chicago. But the village and surrounding communities are not immune to hunger.
That's why adults and children are regularly lined up outside Willow Creek Community Church's food pantry.
A new study shows that for one in eight Americans, the tough economy forced many to seek out some type of emergency food last year.
Million More Seeking Help
The study, conducted by Feeding America which oversees more than 200 food banks nationwide, revealed that food banks and soup kitchens are now feeding 1 million more people every week than three years ago, up from the estimated 5.7 million people helped in 2006.
Church-based feeding centers say their numbers are on the rise as well. Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch based in South Barrington, Ill., said its demand was up by 90 percent last year.
The church gave away more than 2 million pounds of food, and that number could go up this year.
The situation fits with an evolving picture of the hungry. Feeding America said almost 50 percent of its adult clients live in suburban or rural areas. The average monthly income for those who visit food banks: $940.
Also, in one-third of the homes, one or more of the adults is working.
Helping the Underemployed
"The wage is too low," explained Nicole Burt, operations manager for Willow Creek's Care Center. "It's part-time instead of full-time work. Oftentimes they're working multiple jobs to make ends meet."
The people who come to these food pantries are often exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Willow Creek's mission is changing hunger into hope.
"We hope that people see that we're different," Burt said. "And that they ask 'why' so we can share what's happening here and what we believe."
Willow Creek attempts to impart a sense of dignity to people the moment they walk through the door. A small army of volunteers meets individually with those in need. Stories are shared and prayer is offered.
The 'Choice' Room
Then, volunteers escort their guests into the "Choice Room," designed as a French market with red-striped curtains and attractively displayed food. On a typical day, clients can choose from different kinds of breads, fruit, and even baby food.
After the Choice Room, a volunteer loads up more groceries for the client in the warehouse and delivers them outside to the client's car. The parking lot often becomes yet another ministry center as prayer and encouragement are offered again.
"Everytime you come, they greet you with a smile," said Yvonne Lee who has visited several times.
Lee said the center has blessed her both physically and spiritually. And while she looks for work as a nursing assistant, Willow Creek is helping to feed her family.
"When they bless you with food here, you save money because food is so expensive," said Lee. "You can spend it in other places like paying your car, rent -- whatever you need to pay that helps out."
Feeding Chicagoland's Hungry
Lee's struggle is not uncommon. Feeding America reports that 48 percent of the households it serves must choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel. Thirty-nine percent must choose between paying for food and paying for rent or a mortgage.
For jobless couples like Dellamae Bobek and her husband, the food budget can become extremely tight.
"We actually only eat two meals a day," Bobek said. "We'll have a late big breakfast-type meal and then a regular supper meal."
With future demand uncertain, Willow Creek is working creative partnerships with food suppliers across Chicagoland. The church is gleaning leftover pastries and bread and negotiating with restaurants for items like Chicago's famous Italian beef.
They are even growing their own food. Willow Creek volunteers harvest vegetables throughout the summer from a 7,000-foot garden. Plans are in the works to add a hothouse, ensuring a year-round supply of fresh produce.
Amidst all the uncertainty, Willow Creek volunteers say one thing is certain: helping the hungry is a tremendous ministry opportunity. Often, there is great reward in helping those in such difficult straits.
"We are so grateful for this," Bobek said. "It's just amazing that the resources are out there."
*Originally aired on September 9, 2010.