Voice of experience coming to symposium on hunger

CHAMPAIGN — Before she had back surgery and couldn't work for a while, Nateka Simmons never thought hunger could happen to her and her family.

"I woke up one day and couldn't walk," she recalls.

For a year, Simmons went from being a mom with a regular paycheck to a mom dependent on help from local food banks, and she'll talk about what it was like in the Faces of Hunger, a symposium sponsored by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank to discuss hunger in local communities.

The program, free and open to the public, will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at Hilton Garden Inn, 1501 S. Neil St., C.

Simmons, 34, of Urbana, said her experience with hunger was a temporary one. A life enrichment coordinator at Meadowbrook Health Center and the mother of three, she had to undergo surgery for disc degeneration and was unable to work for a about a year, she said.

Because her husband was working part-time then, it "was a dramatic blow," she recalls.

At first, she resisted seeking help through food pantries, Simmons said, but she finally gave in because she didn't have a choice. What she found was help from nice people.

"I didn't have to feel embarrassed," she recalls.

Things eventually turned around for Simmons and her family. Her husband got a full-time job and she has was able to go back to work at Meadowbrook. And while she remembers some frightening times, she also learned something, she says.

"I learned no matter what your education level, no matter how stable you think you are, something can happen in life that can change very quickly," she said. "Nobody is ever prepared for that."

Simmons said she also came to see it's not wrong to ask for help when it's needed, and the people asking may not be who you think they are.

"I've never had to ask for help, and to be honest, I never thought I would ever have to," she adds.

The experience sent her back to school, she said. With two years of college behind her, Simmons said she's decided to get her nursing degree.

Food bank spokeswoman Julie Melton said the symposium, part of Hunger Action Month, will focus on several local people sharing their own experiences with hunger.

"We're hoping it's going to, a little bit, debunk the visualization people have of hungry people," Melton said.

In other words, she says, "it could be you and me."

Oftentimes people think hunger is in third-world countries, Melton said. What people don't see are the veterans who haven't found jobs, living on food stamps, and the children struggling with obesity because their nutrition is so poor, she said.

Jeff McGuire, 44, of Rantoul, an Army and Navy veteran who served in Iraq and Egypt and was injured in active duty, will also talk about his experiences with hunger and need to turn to food pantries for help when benefits ran out.

In the 14 East Central Illinois counties served by the food bank, 14.3 percent of people are considered to be "food insecure," meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from, and 21 percent are children, Melton says.

The highest food insecurity rate in the counties served by the food bank is in Champaign County, in which the food insecurity rate is 16.5 percent, Melton said.

Just over 19 percent of those in Champaign County who don't know where their next meal is coming from are kids, she said.

At the symposium, Melton said, the food bank will also hand out information about the SNAP hunger challenge inviting people to live on $4.50 worth of food per day from Sept. 16-20.

The challenge invites people to live on a limited food budget to see what life is like for people in the SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps — which is $1.50 per meal.

For more information about the SNAP hunger challenge, see: http://bit.ly/188lgoh

RSVP to attend the Faces of Hunger on the food bank's website: http://www.EIfoodbank.org

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