For years Pete Schaefer was an executive at McDonald's Corp., jetting back and forth to booming markets in Asia. Today, he runs the Northern Illinois Food Bank, and a road trip to Rockford counts as a notable departure.
Going from a multibillion-dollar business that feeds 60 million global customers a day to a nonprofit that feeds more than 60,000 needy folks each week might seem like a dramatic downshift. The resources alone don't compare.
But in other ways, it's not as different as you might think.
Just as McDonald's is always hunting for new mouths to feed, so is the food bank. Schaefer aims to triple the amount of food the organization distributes to a 13-county area to 100 million pounds a year.
In pursuit of that goal — he won't reveal a time frame for reaching it — Schaefer spends his days as president and CEO of the Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank drumming up support from local manufacturers, food retailers and group and individual donors.
Joblessness and poverty in Illinois have left 12.5 percent of the residents in the food bank's service area struggling to meet basic food needs. One in four children in northern Illinois is at risk of going hungry, according to recent studies by Feeding America, the Chicago-based national food bank association.
The problem isn't as simple as unemployment, Schaefer said, as one-third of the people he serves are working. "They just don't have enough of a job," he said. After rent, car payments and utility bills, "sometimes what's left over to spend at Jewel and Dominick's doesn't hack it."
Skimpy food budgets are new to many people in DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties. Once financially stable families are increasingly turning to the soup kitchens and other organizations that the Northern Illinois Food Bank supplies with staples such as bread and milk, diapers and baby formula, fresh meat, and produce.
The food bank will feed more than a half-million people this year, up 168 percent from 2006.
"We thought it was a problem (then) because we were doing 15 million pounds of food. Now we're doing 36 million pounds," Schaefer said. In the coming year, he expects that number to climb to 40 million pounds.
Many of the food bank's more than 600 partner organizations, including nonprofits, churches and other groups, scour the food bank's website daily to place orders. Some have reported a 35 to 50 percent increase in demand; others pick up, on average,100 new needy families each week.
"I see people who were impacted from the very beginning of the recession, have not been able to find work and have come to the end of their resources," said Marilyn Weisner, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry. "They have used their savings, sold their houses, have received help from family and now they need to come to a food pantry."
Schaefer frequently meets these people when he's working on the front lines, such as on a ride-along to help deliver food through the food bank's mobile pantry program or helping out at a pantry, as he did recently on a cold, rainy Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Standing in the freezer of the Aurora pantry, Schaefer wore borrowed gloves as he helped a volunteer load a grocery cart with frozen turkeys. Lines of cars waited outside to receive boxes stuffed with necessities for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, including fresh potatoes and cranberry sauce.
As he wheeled out the turkeys, volunteers whizzed past him, busy with their own tasks.
"What do you need?" he asked the pantry's office manager, Kristan Ensminger, when she stopped to say hello. "We could use a lot more cereal," she replied, grinning as she quickly excused herself to get back to work. Another volunteer called out, "Baby formula and diapers."
Later that day Schaefer recalled working with an unemployed man who spends his time volunteering at the shelter.
"He's an unemployed guy who's not home crying or putting himself in a bottle somewhere. He's there packing turkeys," Schaefer said. "I can't tell you how motivating that is."
Pete Schaefer, CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank
Former McDonald's executive keeps food flowing as chief of Northern Illinois Food Bank
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