OAK PARK, Ill. (STMW) – The Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry is narrowing its scope by cutting 13 communities — about 500 people per month — from its client base.

The changes will begin in January and are the result of federal funding cuts, the food pantry’s leaders announced.

“The grim trifecta of drastic cuts in the USDA emergency food assistance program, escalating local food costs and an explosive growth in client visits,’’ have led to the food pantry reducing the area in which it will provide food assistance, said Kathy Russell, the food pantry’s executive director.

Until Jan. 1, the food pantry will continue to provide food for clients in 28 zip codes. After Jan. 1, the service area will consist of 12 zip codes serving Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, Berwyn, Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, River Grove, Schiller Park, as well as the Chicago neighborhoods of Austin and Humboldt Park.

The client base will thus be reduced from about 1,400 persons served a month to 900.

“It’s painful to tell some people they won’t be able to return to our food pantry,’’ Russell said. “But the fact is that we need to be careful stewards of our resources so we are able to remain a strong safety net for those without other recourse.’’

Russell said the decision about which areas the food pantry would no longer serve was determined in consultation with advisers from the regional food bank, Greater Chicago Food Depository. Only areas in which established food banks exist were removed from the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry’s service area.

“No one will be left without access to emergency food as a result of this change,’’ Russell said. “All will receive a referral to a food pantry serving their zip code.’’

For example, Russell said, “Residents of Maywood have access to eight food pantries. There is great need in Maywood, but we need to focus our resources on communities where the need is not being met by other food pantries.’’

Escalating food costs have resulted in deep cuts in assistance from the USDA. For the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, this means a 50 percent reduction in USDA support overall and the elimination of most USDA-supplied protein-rich items such as milk, cheese and frozen meat. Facing cuts of its own the regional food bank from which the pantry purchases its food has lowered its subsidization of food costs by 25 percent.

Thus, food allotments are stretched over a client base at the pantry that has grown almost 130 percent since 2008.

With these ever-stretched resources, the decision was made to concentrate on serving areas without alternative food pantries.

“Clients who have only us will have food,’’ Michele Zurakowski, the food pantry’s director of operations, said.

“The well-being of our clients is our top priority,’’ Russell said. “We know people who are hungry need solid nutrition, not just ramen noodles. So, we will continue to supplement donated food by purchasing protein-rich foods despite rising costs.’’

And as for the reduced number of clients the pantry will serve after Jan. 1, Zurakowski said, “Unless things change (at the federal level) we probably should be back to serving 1,400 clients a month by the end of next year.’’

© Sun-Times Media Wire Chicago Sun-Times 2011. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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