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Ontiveros: Hunger grows as cold sets in

A Greater Chicago Food Depository Fresh Truck in Logan Square.

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We like the idea of feeding hungry people.

Well, during the holidays anyway.

From the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas, food drives are everywhere. Food and money pour in. Collection barrels show up at offices, schools, gyms, grocery stores (talk about convenient). We’re encouraged to bring along canned goods to take part in the festivities at the neighborhood bar.

OPINION

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We give, partly because we’re caught up in spirit of the season. But just as often because we treasure holiday meals with our families and want others to be able to have the same.

Very nice, but don’t you ever wonder: what about the rest of the year?

Sadly, hunger doesn’t end when its time in the holiday spotlight is over. Instead, it becomes a different challenge, changing with each season.

Take January and February, generally Chicago’s coldest months. Heating bills go up and the problem becomes: Keep the family warm or fed? That’s the difficult position too many find themselves in, says Jim Conwell, a Greater Chicago Food Depository spokesperson.

Before you start griping that folks without enough food must be slackers, know this from Conwell’s statistics: more than one-third of those without enough food in Cook County are children. Some 57 percent of the households have at least one person employed; sometimes they’re working multiple jobs.

Despite employment, the people who go hungry in Cook County “still struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table,” says Conwell.

A lack of healthy food can set off a domino effect. The Depository confirmed something heard anecdotally when it participated not long ago in a large national study with Feeding America: the same people struggling to get enough food also battle chronic medical conditions. Some 60 percent of the households have someone with high blood pressure; 35 percent include individuals with diabetes.

No surprise really. Just like a car requires refueling to keep going, the human body needs good, regular meals to remain healthy.

So the Depository launched a new effort at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System’s Logan Square clinic. Doctors question patients to determine if they have access to nutritious food. Those who do not are referred to nearby services and are invited to come get fresh produce off the Depository truck that stops at the clinic monthly.

It’s been so successful the Depository is expanding the program next month to the county’s Cottage Grove clinic in suburban Ford Heights. Eventually it’ll be at all CCHHS locations.

“Food is a critical part of our health, the health of individuals and our community,” says Conwell.

And that’s it in a nutshell: feeding those who don’t have enough isn’t just for the individuals themselves. It’s for the betterment of our entire community.

It would be nice if we’d want to fight hunger year-round simply because we didn’t want anyone going without. But I’m enough of a realist to know too many people pack away their generous spirit with the wreaths and ornaments.

So how about this: not enough good food results in the hungry needing doctors and hospital care. Remember that Feeding America survey? It found that 60 percent of those without enough food have unpaid medical bills. Eventually those costs get passed on to those who can pay.

The reasons for giving during the holidays are warm and fuzzy. In the cold of January, I’m taking a tougher approach: give some now so you aren’t giving more later.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

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