Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, the administrator for East Side Health District, laid off 60 employees, or 65 percent of her staff, as a result of the lack of a state budget.
If there is no budget in place by Aug. 17, she said the facility will cut down operation to just four days a week. Patton-Whiteside said they are providing what service they can to as many people as possible with a skeleton crew and no money.
On Thursday, she was milling with people, talking to regulars and new clientele at Food Raised at East Side Health — FRESH — Farmers Market. She was encouraging them to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible so they can stay healthy, and talked to some about growing their own fruits and vegetables.
Before the market opened, residents sat under a tent and talked about the bleak conditions they are facing due to the lack of a budget as a result of a spat in Springfield between Democrats and Republicans.
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Lucy Jackson said, “I feel it’s unjust. It’s not right. I don’t think Gov. (Bruce) Rauner should be cutting the programs and benefits that help the elderly and the poor.”
Jackson, 85, said Rauner “should walk a day or a month in our shoes. Then I think he will have a better understanding of what we’re going through. Experience is the best teacher,” she said. “The kids and seniors need to be able to use their Link cards to buy food. And we need East Side Health District. The children need to take physicals for schools. People are sick, and no one gets turned away here.”
A call to the governor’s office was not immediately returned.
Three different vendors had a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on display Thursday at the farmers market. There was a variety of vegetables including green beans, green peppers and onions and fruit such as peaches, nectarines and apples grown in the community teaching garden that is next door to East Side Health District at 656 N. 20th St.
Another vendor, Lehr Farms from Columbia, had plenty of fruits and vegetables as did Cooley Farms from Carlyle. Every Thursday the vendors come to the East Side Health District so it is for seniors and families who do not have adequate transportation to get to fresh fruits and vegetables. The market is available to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday through October.
“Everything out here is WIC (Women, Infants and Children) certified,” Patton-Whiteside said. “We have a senior summer food voucher for our seniors 60 and older. They get a booklet for $21 to use toward anything out here. And we plan to start a new program in August that we call ‘Eat Up Illinois.’ If you use a Link card and get your blood pressure, weight and height taken, you can get another $5 to spend at the market.”
When the market started in 2011, there was just one vendor and a small crowd. Now there are three vendors and a much bigger group of people who spend their money at the market.
“We want people to get educated on how important eating fresh fruits and vegetables is,” Patton-Whiteside said. “We give them brochures with recipes on them that they can make with the food they buy here.”
Items not grown on the half acre Community Teaching Garden come from farmers on Pocket Road in Alorton, she said.
Janet Williams, 72, said the budget fight “is bad for kids and seniors. We want them to approve the budget,” she said. “They need to see how it is. They don’t have to suffer like we are in East St. Louis and other poor areas.”
Patton-Whiteside described the budget impasse as “a great hardship. We serve the most indigent from four townships — Cahokia, Washington Park and Centerville — which is about 65,000 people. We handle over 5,000 WIC vouchers,” she said. “We do restaurant and grocery store inspections. We won’t be able to do inspections. This is not good.”
East Side Health District has the highest number of sexually transmitted disease cases, according to Patton-Whiteside. It also helps HIV patients.
“This is very serious,” she said. “We are talking about people’s health, and them being able to access the care they need. We are in a location where it is easy for them to access the services we provide.”
Cathy Boyd, 68, shed tears as she talked about how the budget stalemate is dealing the most vulnerable people the biggest hardship. And she said it seems to her that those who do not have to live in poverty and who do not know what it is like to be hungry or homeless are not showing concern for the poor.
“We don’t want them to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. We want the politicians to pass the budget and stop politicking. Think about the people,” she said.
Boyd said, “If the WIC card is not continued, it is going to be very devastating... I want the governor to come here and go door-to-door and talk to us. He will see how our community is suffering. They can get a first-hand look at what we are dealing with.”
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.