OCHD’s mini food centers in Oregon, surrounding counties combat food insecurity

‘We believe food insecurity will be the next big health issue to battle’


OREGON — In October of last year, the Ogle County Health Department received a CDC Addressing Conditions to Improve Population Health (ACTion) grant for $500,000 each year from 2023-2026 to increase access and availability to healthy and nutritious foods, education for home-based food production, food pantries, and mini food centers (refrigerated and dry food).

The grant applies to the four-county area of Ogle, Lee, Whiteside and Carroll to combat food insecurity in food deserts. During the last two weeks of May, one mini food center was opened in each of those counties. They include a refrigerator, freezer and a dry pantry and are housed in shelters built by woodshop students at Oregon Junior Senior High School. The mini food centers are filled with food through grant funds each week for members of the community in need to help themselves to.

“It's been amazing so far,” OCHD Grant Coordinator Joyce Lewis said. “People have left great feedback and are marking down what they've been taking and if they're donating, which makes us able to report data back to the CDC. We've had people ask about donating eggs, meat and produce. It's fabulous to see communities coming together to take care of each other.”

The mini food centers are located at Nash Recreation Center at 304 S. 5th St. in Oregon (Ogle County), Teen Turf at 235 W. Main St. in Amboy (Lee County), YWCA of Sauk Valley at 412 1st Ave. in Sterling (Whiteside County), and Davis Community Center at 631 S. East St. in Mt. Carroll (Carroll County). 

Lewis said in the fall, more mini food centers will be put into place. In October, the mini food centers will be taken over by hosting centers that will incorporate sponsorships from different businesses and companies within their area to help fund them. They will be responsible for finding sponsors to help maintain the food going into them, the cleaning, and the electrical costs.

“The next three years of the grant will consist of education, more mini food centers, poverty simulations with leadership, and community gardens,” Lewis said. “We know that people are struggling with high prices in grocery stores. People can't afford to pay $4.50 for a gallon of milk. To be able to bridge that gap for some of our community is incredibly needed. And it opens other peoples' eyes to the fact that people are struggling.”

Lewis said the community has been “instrumental” in the implementation of the mini food centers, namely the OJSHS students.

“We had a meeting with them and gave them a basic design idea and they came up with the completed design,” Lewis said. “We had the kids from OJSHS on site building one of the units and we saw that enthusiasm to help people in their community.”

The planning phase for the grant implementation took OCHD a year, where it looked at demographics, income levels, and distances to grocery stores and food pantries.

“Food insecurity doesn't mean someone is going hungry,” Lewis said. “It means that they don't have the accessibility or availability to get nutritious food. They may not have a grocery store in their town or they may have transportation issues. We want people to understand that and to understand that there is stigma in asking for and receiving help.”

The mini food centers are not staffed, which allows those in need to get food without fear of feeling looked down upon. Participants are not asked for information. They simply are only asked to mark if they are adding or removing food. 

The OCHD wants area residents to be able to have the opportunity to take care of themselves and their families and to feel comfortable going to mini food centers and food banks and pantries without feeling that people are looking down on them. 

Area food pantries have seen high demand recently. Lewis said the need at the Sauk Valley Food Bank, the need has more than doubled since last year, previously seeing 300-350 families a day to now seeing 650-700. 

“That's alarming to me,” Lewis said. “Kids aren't getting the nutrition they need. It's proven that kids not eating nutritious food can act out. They're hungry and that can often be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities. We want to see everyone have equal nutrition. We believe food insecurity will be the next big health issue to battle. We had COVID-19. This is going to be our next health disparity. We are putting a lot of resources towards it. It's all I work on each day, as I'm fully funded by the grant.”

Lewis said the solution to unprecedented need numbers could be outside-of-the-box solutions like mini food centers. Commercials have been launched to tell the area where they’re located. The OCHD has piloted a community garden and that produce will be available to those in need.

“That's where we come in with education and nutrition programs and the poverty simulations,” Lewis said. “This wouldn't be possible without the grant. It's a lot of money and the CDC has given us the opportunity. We're the only small, local health department to get this grant. This is a very big project for a health department of our size. We're very passionate about it. We're covering a lot of ground to help people.”