An Appetite for Change

Hunger affects many locals, but people like Michael Gillespie are working to alleviate their struggles

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Poverty and hunger are a very real problem in Coles County and the surrounding area. In fact, you might not realize just how widespread these issues are in east-central Illinois; Michael Gillespie certainly didn’t know it when he took a job in EIU’s Department of Sociology back in 2010.

Since then, however, Dr. Gillespie has fully immersed himself in not only identifying and researching poverty and food insecurity within the 14-county region served by the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, but also becoming active in the fight against them and encouraging Eastern students to do the same.

“I look at the geographic distribution of where poverty is within the counties that are serviced by the food bank,” said Gillespie, explaining his research efforts. “The reason I use the food bank is because it makes for a nice comparison between different size counties. It allows for a nice dynamic to be able to compare the data between different size places within a geographic region.”

Despite a long-standing interest in poverty issues and other equality-related matters dating back to his undergrad days at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Gillespie says his decision to come to Charleston wasn’t actually influenced by the area’s demographics.

“I started fishing around (for poverty data) and I couldn’t find anything,” remembers Gillespie of researching the area prior to his arrival at EIU. “When I came down here, I still couldn’t dig anything up. I started asking around, and no one was collecting this information, and so that’s sort of how I got started. I figured someone had to do it, and why not me?”

It was the beginning of the Coles County Poverty Data Project, a blog Gillespie developed and maintains. The purpose and goals of the project are stated on the site’s “About” page, but the gist is that it exists to collect and disseminate poverty data from within the county and region in hopes that the right people will utilize it to make a positive change.

“I’ve consulted and I have worked with several different organizations within the county and within the region,” said Gillespie. “(The blog) gives them immediate access to some quick numbers if they are writing grants, or they need to go give a speech, or they need to utilize that information somehow for their own work.

“It became sort of a two-fold thing: A creative way to get information out there, but also a way to access and use data, which I found difficult to do when I moved down here.”

As an assistant professor in the sociology department, Gillespie also finds plenty of opportunity to use this research in the classroom.

“There’s a really nice crossover,” said Gillespie. “It’s stuff that I do that fulfills me to be able to give back to the community — sort of a skill that I have and a trait that I have — but also then bring that into the classroom, and hopefully inspire other students to go off and do similar things.

“It gives them a way to see how it’s played out in the real world, so they can see, they can take it in, and then as maybe an avenue for them to explore in grad school, or in employment, or something for that.”

Those interactions with students aren’t limited to classroom settings, either.

“I haven’t had a chance to get students involved directly within the research aspect, but what I’ve done is I’ve worked with Rachel Fisher in the Student Community Service office and we have come up with a student organization called the Hunger Action Team,” said Gillespie.

“What the Hunger Action Team exists to do is to educate and be activists about issues of poverty and hunger, not only in our community, but around the state, around the country, and around the world.”

The Hunger Action Team gets students out in the field, raising money, scheduling speakers, and getting active in local organizations so they can get a first-hand grasp on the issues at hand.

“Hopefully they’ll get inspired to do something about it while they are here at Eastern or after they leave,” said Gillespie, who went on to explain that November is Hunger Action Month. “Every day of the month is something different related to issues of poverty, or related to issues of hunger, either within the community, or somewhere around the country, somewhere around the state.

This year, we have guest speakers coming in, we have food carts that we put out on Thursdays around campus so people who are walking around can get a meal, and all the money that is made there goes back to local organizations. We do food drives, we do in-kind donation drives for things like toiletries. We are always looking for ways to get students involved in being service persons, in being activists, and being inspired to move forward with these issues.”

Gratitude To Give

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Originally posted on Eastern Illinois University Student Community Service:

As I mature, I am realizing that the best of me is more often than not directed toward someone else.  As a professor, I am an educator and I continually strive to give to my students the educational experience they deserve.  As a scholar and activist, I align my research with a subject matter – poverty and food insecurity – that is very meaningful for myself and others, and which is utilized to enact social change.  In service – the definition of acting for and with others (not towards an other), my focus remains on presenting my best self for their betterment.

The difference in my service compared to my teaching and research is that I try quite hard to remain in the shadows.  Lecturing and being a scholar-activist are very public roles, whether in front of a classroom or audience.  Volunteering – giving back – for me is not.

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Poverty Presentation, 10-Oct-2014: Mattoon, Illinois Public Schools

Today, I shared the following presentation with the Mattoon Public Schools faculty and staff for their Fall Teacher’s Institute.

You can download the presentation slides by clicking on the following link:

Mattoon Public Schools October 2014 for Web

State and Local Poverty Data Out Today

Today the Census Bureau released their American Community Survey 1-year estimates data for 2013.  This data shows poverty, income, health insurance, and much other data, available for states and localities if their population size is over 65,000.


Because the counties within the East-Central Illinois Region, and important county subdivisions such as census tracts, have populations less than 65,000, the region is not included in this release.  The two exceptions are Champaign County and Vermillion County, the two most populous counties in the Eastern Illinois Foodbank service area, are included in this release.  However, the CCPDP is waiting until all counties within the region, and then all important subdivisions there within, are released to proceed with any reliable analysis.

For general information on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Poverty reports, you can explore their poverty topical webpage or download their 2013 Poverty Report.

Reliable county-wide American Community Survey data for the full East-Central Illinois Region is scheduled to be released on October 23, 2014; the most reliable and useful data for this project will be released on December 4, 2014.


Please keep checking back for updates.

Updates Coming…

As new poverty data are released throughout the fall of 2014, the Coles County Data Project is being updated to reflect the latest estimates available.

Further, an expanded area which covers the 14 counties serviced by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank will be a new feature to this site.

Please check back often for updates, or subscribe to be notified when new information is available.

Writing check best way to combat local hunger

Published in the September 12, 2014 Journal Gazette-Times Courier:

Writing check best way to combat local hunger

September is Hunger Action Month – Spread the Word to Strengthen Food Security!

September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide campaign to stimulate the public to take action on the issue of hunger, food insecurity, and poverty. Organized by Feeding America—the nationwide network of food banks—this campaign strives to bring greater attention to the issue of hunger in America and promotes ways for individuals everywhere to get involved with the movement to solve it.  Like most nationally-organized campaigns, Hunger Awareness Month attempts to inspire individuals to act within their own communities and play  a role in getting food to those in need.

The need for elevated action is acute in Coles County and East Central Illinois.  Nationally, Feeding America reports that 1 in 6 individuals—just under 17 percent of the population—are at-risk of hunger or food insecurity; based on my own research, in Coles County more than 2 in 5 individuals—40.5 percent—may not know from where their next meal may come.  Further, over 35 percent of all families with children under 18 years of age in Coles County are at-risk of inadequate nutrition due to unstable and inaccessible sources of food.  Therefore, this is not just a month for awareness locally, but a call for critical action to strengthen the social safety net county-wide.

As a researcher and advocate, I am often asked what can be done to strike at the heart of the issues of food insecurity and poverty.  My reply is a simple one: donate money to local food pantries.  Often, this is met with some reservation; research on charitable giving has concluded that private individuals and organizations get more satisfaction through the act of giving if we actually distribute the products or goods directly to those in need.  This is why we see so many canned-food drives or the procurement of prepared meals at shelters and soup kitchens.  While noble and very much appreciated, without cash donations, our local pantries actually miss out on maximizing the amount of commodities to dispense to their customers.

For example, when we spend one dollar on a can of beans or corn to be placed in a box or bag for a family in need, food pantries can take that single dollar and purchase ten dollars worth of food from the regional food bank; that is ten cans of beans or corn for every one we can we can buy at the grocery store.

A recent working research paper by Bethany Slater of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany corroborates this line of reasoning.  She found that food pantries benefit the most and can efficiently increase the amount of food available for distribution through private cash donations; the best source of in-kind donations happens to be public sector entities such as local, state, and federal agencies.  These public sector agencies are better able to commit resources for the long-term, not only through a one-time food drive or donation.

These issues are most acute as I recently learned of a shortage of meat-based commodities typically available from regional food banks.  The federal government provides surplus commodities such as meat and poultry, as well as some dairy and canned vegetables, to regional food banks who then distribute this food to our local pantries and soup kitchens.  It is projected that meat, poultry, and other animal-based protein sources, due to a national shortage, may not be available until December.  Prices for meats—especially beef—have skyrocketed due to these shortages and the cost of all high-protein foods are elevated. The result is that meat will be missing from the dinner tables of some households who need this nutrition the most, and especially if our local pantries are already experiencing thin budgets.

If giving of money or food directly may be feasible, there are plenty of other ways to act.  For example, one can volunteer their time at area food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens.  We can inform ourselves of these issues and help educate our family members, neighbors, and friends.  We can even seek to break-down barriers to food justice and find creative ways to connect those at-risk of food insecurity and hunger with nutritious, quality, and beneficial food – even if it means simply opening ourselves up to write a check.


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