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Hunger in the year of COVID

It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In March last year, West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridges had just announced the Access 2020 initiative to double their service capacity by reconfiguring their physical space to help launch online ordering for families in need in DuPage and Will counties. Designs were complete, control software was under construction, and fundraising was underway.

The pantry had just celebrated 140 volunteers, including many retirees and a handful of students who kept the pantry running smoothly week after week, delivering to remote sites, picking up groceries from food partners in area, sorting products, stocking our shelves, and helping customers shop in the Pantry Store.

The small but mighty staff was preparing for a summer of renovation, reconfiguration and redeployment. And then everything stopped.

What hasn’t stopped with the shutdown is the need for food. Within days, it was apparent that demand would eclipse anything the pantry had seen before. At the same time, health department guidelines dictated the Pantry Store be closed and older volunteers stayed home. Pantry security protocols have been redoubled.

With widespread layoffs and children kicked out of school, demand for food has skyrocketed.

The pantry switched to pre-packaged foods ready to fill the trunks of hundreds of cars that lined up day after day. Moving companies and big-box stores donated boxes. Volunteers sewed dozens of masks for pantry workers because PPE was in short supply.

The limited crew of volunteers was joined by staff and family members struggling to keep up with demand. Volunteers and employees whose job it was to collect food donations from local grocers encountered teary-eyed store managers who reported that their shelves were almost empty – there was nothing left to donate.

“I am very grateful for the flexibility and positivity of our volunteers. From those who responded to last minute requests to pack boxes, to those who work hard from home to help us keep our records up to date; volunteers who sort produce before the sun comes up and those who travel long distances to make sure we pick up donations, all of which have contributed to the collective focus on our mission to feed the hungry,” said the coordinator volunteers, Rebecca Boland.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

All the while, the line of cars of people seeking help stretched from the Woodridge Pantry site on Hobson Valley Drive to Hobson Road and Route 53. Local police helped manage traffic. The pantry served 67% more people in the first four months of the pandemic.

Food demand for families at Irene King Elementary School in Romeoville, where West Suburban maintains a school pantry, has increased from an average of 30 families to 80. The pantry continued to supply food to families served by Bridge Communities and DuPage PADS whose new self-sufficiency was threatened by the challenges of the pandemic.

“Overall, we’ve seen the need for meals increase by up to 50%,” says Laura Coyle, Managing Director. “Incredibly, we have served over 15,000 additional people during the pandemic. But week after week, food and fund donations began to increase. The volunteers were able to return. This helped us to act quickly and safely.

In the meantime, the Pantry’s longer-term goals have not taken a back seat. “We knew this request was just confirmation that the need was far greater than what we were currently experiencing. Research indicates that nearly 70% of those in need do not visit a food pantry due to from a lack of transportation, time, or just plain pride,” Coyle explains. “That’s why the launch of Access 2020 was so important. We are on a mission to remove barriers to access to food by intentionally developing methods that reach families where they are and in ways that treat them. with dignity. Now was not the time to scuttle our plans.”

Throughout the summer, as boxed delivery service continued, construction continued on the new Pantry and Warehouse customer service areas. The online ordering service and the withdrawal space have been created. Only the construction of the Pantry Store was delayed, as this space was needed to pack the hundreds of boxes of food needed each week. The pantry has received donations of fresh produce from community gardens, toiletries and staples from local service clubs and Costco run by local families. As customer retention dwindled, local partner grocery stores were able to donate again. The pantry delivered food to the doorsteps of elderly people unable to leave the house.

By the end of the year, the food pantry was able to distribute over 550 turkeys and 100 hams and enabled 400 families to receive Christmas toys, books and stockings.

The Access 2020 initiative is now underway to give customers food choices while ordering groceries online in a private and convenient way. “Adding online order pickup sites to our service area and revamping our facilities will improve both the online and pantry shopping experience for our customers,” said Coyle. . “As demand continues, we have learned a lot about the importance of our plan. We cannot wait for the day when we can open the doors to our new Pantry Store. In the meantime, we are committed to using our new remote from order online. delivery system as well as the pre-box drive service to feed our neighbours.”

The West Suburban Community Pantry served 67,164 people from Woodridge, Bolingbrook, Lisle, Naperville, Westmont, Willowbrook and parts of Will County in 2020. A total of 602 volunteers gave more than 31,550 hours to feed the hungry.

“I’m immensely proud of how the organization has lived our values ​​of being people-centered with a spirit of ’empowerment’,” Coyle said. “We have made every effort to safely serve our neighbors in need and increase our capacity. During this time, we have stayed the course with our strategic initiatives and our capital project. It’s herculean what this team has achieved in a pandemic year. With the help of our Board of Directors, our volunteers and our donors, we can meet the growing needs even more in the years to come. »

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