Rescuing Food & Delivering Hope

Heart of Illinois Harvest has been rescuing and distributing surplus food for nearly three decades.

by Mark Johnson
More than three dozen volunteers collect food donations every day for distribution to over 75 local organizations.
More than three dozen volunteers collect food donations every day for distribution to over 75 local organizations.

Editor’s note: Each and every week, hundreds (or perhaps even thousands) of retirees throughout central Illinois volunteer their time and energy at local not-for-profit organizations. Their efforts improve the quality of life for all residents. This is the story of one of them.

Heart of Illinois Harvest is a nonprofit organization with a 29-year legacy of collecting and distributing surplus food throughout the Tri-County region. More than three dozen volunteers collect approximately 2,000 pounds of food donations every day, Monday through Saturday, from 45 area food wholesalers, supermarkets and restaurants; this food is then distributed to more than 75 local organizations. Most of the recipients are some type of food bank or food pantry, operated under the auspices of a local church or other nonprofit organization.

Harvest has a very interesting origin story. Back in 1991, a semi-tractor trailer hauling a load of potatoes caught fire and burned on Interstate 74 in East Peoria. When the intended recipient rejected the potatoes, the trailer was hauled to the Salvation Army and an ad was placed in the Peoria Journal Star stating that people could receive free potatoes. Folks lined up around the block, and the trailer was emptied in four hours. This experience sparked an idea which led to the creation of Harvest as it operates today.

The need for the service Harvest provides is well documented. According to FeedingAmerica.org, in its latest survey conducted in 2018, 12 percent of the population in Peoria County (or approximately 22,000 people) were classified as “food insecure.” This figure includes more than 7,000 children. Food insecurity refers to the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Put simply, approximately one out of ten residents of Peoria County has some level of food insecurity at some time during the year.

About 7.5 tons of surplus food is collected each week from restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, bakeries, schools and other area donors.
About 7.5 tons of surplus food is collected each week from restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, bakeries, schools and other area donors.

My Volunteer Experience

Shortly after I retired 11 years ago, a good friend asked if I might be interested in volunteering for Harvest. Since then, I have worked about 40 Tuesday mornings each year, collecting and distributing surplus food. While there is significant variation, research has shown that the average American adult eats approximately 1.5 pounds of food per meal. Using that figure, the food rescued by Harvest volunteers provides about 1,300 meals per day, or 8,000 meals per week. Unfortunately, that does not even cover one meal a week to the residents of Peoria County who have been classified as living in a “food-insecure” environment.

Harvest owns and operates two vehicles—a medium-sized cargo truck that picks up contributions from larger donors, and a midsized cargo van that picks up smaller contributions. Both vehicles depart their base of operations at the Metro Centre about 7:30am and return around noon, depending on the volume of donations received on any given day. More donations obviously requires more time to sort, load and distribute the food. Harvest attempts to distribute all the food it picks up each day to recipients that same day.

The day after a holiday is always a hectic one for Harvest volunteers, as supermarkets generally have an abundance of surplus food to donate after the holiday rush. Ever wonder where all those pumpkin pies go that remain on the bakery shelves after Thanksgiving? If they are not sold, at least some of them will be loaded onto the Harvest truck and van and distributed to a welcoming recipient organization.

I started my volunteer time with Harvest as a loader and sorter working on the truck. We had a regular crew of three guys who worked together on the truck for about four years. Of course, as volunteers age, situations arise and after a few years I was “promoted” to serve as driver of the truck. Then three years ago, I was “transferred” to the position of driver of the van, again on Tuesday mornings.

Harvest volunteers drop off food at the Goodwill Home For Veterans every Tuesday morning.
Harvest volunteers drop off food at the Goodwill Home For Veterans every Tuesday morning.

Of our most challenging donations, we used to regularly receive large five-pound cans of beets, sauerkraut and cheese sauce from a food wholesaler. It was always a difficult task finding folks who were interested in those cans. But the most unusual donation came one January after a Jewish holiday, when a supermarket donated two boxes of jars of gefilte fish. Most folks would take one look at those jars and it was all thumbs down. We eventually dropped those boxes off directly at the synagogue—and they were overjoyed. There’s always a happy recipient if you just keep looking!

Most Harvest volunteers carried on over the past year through the COVID-19 pandemic. A few of the more senior volunteers chose to take an extended respite, but the majority masked up, practiced social distancing as appropriate, and washed their hands as often as possible. Both the truck and van were sanitized every day after operations were completed. Today, most of the volunteers have received their immunizations and are ready to continue.

Community-Wide Support

Harvest has been very fortunate over the years to have received tremendous support from the community for its operations. Over the past four years, Harvest found it necessary to replace some of its older, worn-out vehicles. Supporters of the organization were very generous in their contributions, and with the new vehicles, volunteers can make their daily trips without fear of breakdowns or delays along their routes.

Of course, a major aspect of any volunteer activity are the friends and experiences that result. I now know some of the wonderful and very dedicated volunteers at Sophia’s Kitchen, which hands out over 400 sack lunches each day and operates adjacent to Saint Joseph’s Church, just west of downtown Peoria. I also become aware of another Harvest recipient, the Teen Challenge organization, which provides an alternative opportunity for rehabilitation to first-time juvenile offenders. I also now know about the Goodwill Veterans Home in Peoria, another Harvest recipient, which provides a helping hand to area vets who need some assistance finding housing and job training skills.

Harvest is always in need of a few more volunteers or a few more dollars—especially with gas prices rising again. If you’re interesting in volunteering or would like to make a contribution, please contact Harvest’s executive director, Tina Johnson, at (309) 693-0876. PM

To learn more about Heart of Illinois Harvest, visit hoiharvest.org.

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