25th annual Food for Families kicks off Saturday at Memorial Stadium

25th annual Food for Families kicks off Saturday at Memorial Stadium

The Food for Families Drive brings in tons of food and more than $100,000 annually for the hungry, but the first attempt at a Champaign-Urbana food drive didn't go so well.

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank was in its infancy in 1983 and barely had enough money or manpower to stay afloat, much less do publicity for a food drive, according to founder Vern Fein. He still remembers the half-empty donation boxes at local grocery stores.

So, the next year, he visited an Oklahoma City food bank that had successfully partnered with its Junior League on an annual food drive and brought that idea back to Champaign-Urbana.

Shortly afterward, Fein happened to sit next to Junior League member Susan Garner at a meeting at the Urbana Library, and they started talking. It took two years, but that conversation led to a fruitful partnership and a signature charity event in Champaign County.

"Food for Families really would not have flown without them in the beginning," Fein said Thursday. "It's been incredibly successful. Now, it's become the bulwark of our fundraising."

The food bank is once again partnering with the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana to kick off its 25th Food for Families Drive with an event Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Volunteers will be stationed at all four corners outside the stadium collecting donations of food or cash before the 2:30 p.m. Illinois-Ohio State game.

The two-week Food for Families Drive runs from Oct. 15 to 29. It's the food bank's largest drive, supplying food for the winter months for pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies in a 14-county area.

Food for Families officially launched in 1986, collecting 84,000 pounds of food through schools grocery stores and other sites. That's "a drop in the bucket" compared with the 7 million pounds the food bank takes in annually now, Fein said, but back then, it was a much larger chunk of the yearly supply.

The Junior League mobilized its volunteers to collect food and publicize the event. Rose Costello, who chaired Food for Families in one of those early years, remembers passing out fliers to shoppers who had never heard of Food for Families and persuading store managers to put out collection bins or even pre-packaged bags of groceries for donors.

The organization also lent its prestige, helping persuade early sponsors WCIA television and The News-Gazette that Food for Families was legitimate, Fein said.

"They had the people to do the work. We needed that. We didn't have this huge volunteer base," Fein said.

The food bank was struggling at the time and had almost closed its doors in 1984, avoiding catastrophe only when three donors — Bill Weisiger and the late Kenny Porter and Bob Hosier — stepped forward to provide a line of credit through Busey Bank, Fein said.

"That saved us," Fein said, and Food for Families "was a vital part of keeping it going. We really needed to get food to supply our agencies."

Food for Families "took off" in 1987, even scoring a short promotional clip from Oprah Winfrey endorsing the food drive in "East Illinois."

The drive raised the food bank's profile and connected it to the community, said Cheryl Precious, director of development. Besides the schoolchildren and shoppers who donated, food manufacturers and distributors started sending in truckloads of food.

"It raised awareness about the hunger problem, but it kick-started all the community outreach," she said. "It was really what allowed the food bank to grow."

Over time, financial donations have become more important as demand has risen, because the food bank can purchase food for 10 cents on the dollar, officials said.

The annual goal for food donations during the drive is now 200,000 pounds, but Food for Families also typically brings in more than $100,000, Precious said.

"We still get a lot of food, but money goes farther," said Fein, who has remained active with the agency and is now on its development committee. "Now, when you say Food for Families, a lot of people take that occasion to contribute to us, which is huge."

The Junior League sponsored the Food for Families Drive for several years before turning it over to other organizations, as it does with most projects. Then Costello, who became a food bank board member, and several other former Junior League officers (Linda Tabb, Graciela Andresen and Cindi Wellman) agreed to take over until the food bank staff assumed control.

"I just didn't want the drive to die," Costello said. "If nothing else, I think we solidified the support of the community in those early years."

She remembers walking in the Fourth of July parade carrying a Food for Families banner and hearing people clap.

"People were so grateful. It really made us realize how important it was to the community," she said.

Vein, who works at the Vineyard Church's food pantry, said the drive remains vital in current economic conditions.

"People are showing up now that — believe me — never thought they would be in a food line," he said.

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