Across the state, one event at a time, Illinois 4-H members and volunteers are dedicated to creating more food-secure communities where they live. Three years into the 4-H Feeding and Growing Our Communities initiative, more than half a million meals have been purchased, packaged and distributed to families in need; and thousands of pounds of garden produce have been raised to feed hungry families.
The grassroots Extension effort empowers youth first to understand hunger in their local community, then to develop a plan of action unique to their community’s needs.
In some communities, 4-H members gather donations of food to fill backpacks for children to take home on the weekend so they have food to eat the days they are away from school. In other communities, volunteers come together to package soy-rice ingredients into meal packets which are then donated to local family-assistance sites, such as food banks and food pantries. These food-packaging events are done with the assistance of Illini Fighting Hunger, a University of Illinois student organization which operates with the Wesley Foundation on campus.
In 2016 alone, 259,878 meals were packaged by Illinois 4-H; bringing the total number of people fed through 4-H’s efforts to 588,275 in three years. More than 5,050 volunteers have assisted, donating 30,700 hours of service to this program alone.
The raw ingredients cost about 14 cents per meal, and 4-H clubs hosting the meal packaging events must raise funds to cover most of the cost of the meals they package. Up to $750 is provided to groups for each event from a statewide Illinois 4-H Foundation grant. Seed money was provided by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, and subsequent funding has come from Evelyn Brandt Thomas and Farm Credit Illinois.
Community 4-H gardens also provide valuable support for families in need, and in some counties, provide a full-circle “garden to table” experience for young 4-H members who till the land, plant the seeds, care for growing plants, harvest the vegetables, and then prepare nutritious dishes, said Bill Million, University of Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist.
The 2016 growing season was a challenge for gardens; still, in three years, nearly 17,500 pounds of produce with an economic value of $25,000 have been harvested and donated locally by 4-H community gardens. It is estimated that nearly 7,000 families have enjoyed the bountiful harvest graciously given by Illinois 4-H members.
“It is such a joy to watch a garden grow,” said a 4-H volunteer from the Bountiful Kids 4-H Club in Peoria County. “But I think the bigger joy was in donating the vegetables we worked hard to tend,” she said. “Experiences like these will nourish these children to become giving adults.”
"4-H believes in the power of youth to make their communities better,” said Lisa Diaz, U of I assistant dean and director of Illinois 4-H. “They set a goal for themselves to raise awareness about hunger in Illinois and have exceeded all expectations.
“This is what 4-H is all about."
Logan County 4-H Ambassadors have filled a real need with their weekend food backpack program, but it was hard for them to grasp that other children didn’t have food at home, Extension Educator Carissa Akpore said. Once they understood, their passion to help their peers exploded.
“We need to step up our game and help make it bigger and better next year,” said one Logan County 4-H Ambassador.
The life lessons 4-H members gain may equal the life-saving food their efforts provide, a Hardin County Corn Fed Clovers Club leader said. “The 4-H Feeding and Growing Our Communities garden not only produced vegetables for those in need in our community, but it also produced a group of kids with a new outlook on how they can be caring citizens in their communities.”
Fifty counties held a 4-H hunger initiative program locally in 2016. Those who wish to support continued 4-H efforts in this area are encouraged to contact Illinois 4-H @ illinois4H@illinois.edu or call 217-333-0910.