“About two, three years ago, I got run over by a truck.” Ariana, a client at the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, explained her story. “I was in hospital for months. I couldn’t keep working. It was a situation tough. If it wasn’t for the food pantry, I would have lost my house.
”Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, a local partner of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, has been serving the community for over 40 years. According to Terri Venzon, Pantry Services Manager, client relations are important to their mission. “Sometimes we are the only ones our clients’ talk to that whole day.”
Ariana remembers speaking with her friends at the pantry. “The day you realize that little angels exist? Those ladies are sweet angels.
“They ask you what you want! It’s a great thing. And, yes, I understand it’s from donation and you can’t get exactly what you want all the time, but at least I can get a dinner on the table.”
Ariana’s voice trembles with emotion. “Every grocery I bring in the house is a blessing from you to me.”
Jake started at the Food Bank on Sept. 17, 2018–the same day his dad went back to work as a teacher after a life-changing illness that scared Jake and his family.
“When my dad collapsed in his classroom the year before, it was eye opening and it really affected me –all of us,” Jake recalls. Jake was working for DuPage Township Food Pantry in Romeoville, and he scaled back his hours so he could care for his dad.
When it was time for both men to return to work (Jake’s dad is not one for sitting idly), Jake saw an opening for Agency Pickup Representative at the Food Bank’s South Suburban Center in Joliet, and he knew it was the right move.
“I wanted my footprint to have much bigger impact. I knew the Food Bank is where I could help more people on a larger scale. I mean this year we distributed 100 million meals –we all did it.”
He is responsible for ensuring member food pantries in the south suburbs get the food they need. On a recent Wednesday, he was helping Evetta from Wesley’s Table work a jigsaw of boxes that she was trying to fit into her pickup truck. It’s a typical day for Jake –meaning that there is no typical day.
“Our job is getting the food in and getting it out. We fill all sorts of vehicles –no matter what shape or how small.”
For Jake, working at the Food Bank is a full-circle experience–which is a lot to say since he’s only 25 years old.(“Everyone, especially our volunteers, thinks I’m older.”)He understands the Food Bank mission because he was a food pantry client at one point in his life.
While his job was supposed to be supporting food pantries, the pandemic changed all of that. The focus shifted to distributing food directly to neighbors in large-scale drive-throughs.
“There were a lot of details to work out, but I kept saying, ‘Let’s get it moving and make it as easy on us as we can.’”
He still supports pop-up Mobile Markets, like the monthly one at Joliet Junior College, and his responsibilities have evolved to also overseeing My Pantry Express pickups from the Food Bank’s online food pantry.
“The Food Bank is a great place to work. We’re doing something positive here and it’s what we should be doing,” he says. Besides, he gets to drive a forklift.
Judy and Jesus are Juniors at Cristo Rey College Prep in Waukegan. During the pandemic, the school’s parking area became a site for Northern Illinois Food Bank’s mobile pantry. Both students volunteered to help distribute fresh, healthy food to families.
“There were a lot of cars at the first distribution here,” Judy remembered. “It was almost at the beginning of the pandemic and a lot of families were suffering financially. They needed food for their families.”
Jesus agreed. “These food distributions have been of much help for the community. In my own experience, with my family, I have seen that it does help a lot.”
Volunteering has been good for both teens. “We sign up together through the school,” Judy explained. “I like it a lot because we interact (with friends,) and also help the community.”
“Me too!” says Jesus. “I think (everyone here is grateful)because (Northern Illinois Food Bank) has continued helping the families here.” Inspired, he added, “…Having access to food that is free, I think that it is a great initiative.”
Today’s daily featurette during Hunger Action Month spotlights a building … but oh, what a building. Ten years ago today, we cut the ribbon and opened our new home on Dearborn Court in Geneva –our West Suburban Center.
We’ve certainly grown into it. It’s an LEED Gold-rated facility. In 2011 we distributed 33 million meals (this year we’ve distributed 100 million meals), and we’ve grown from 56 to 150 employees.
Some of our current team members were present in 2011 when we broke ground and later cut the ribbon on the new building. They include Julie, now President & CEO; Tom, Jose, Charles, Jake, Marianne, Tim J. and Tim W. from Transportation; Tom from Food Procurement; Chris, Victor, Karen, Roberto, Genaro, Francisco, Juan and Jose from Operations; Maeven and Hester from Philanthropy; Jacqui from Agency Relations; Shannon from Volunteer; and Tom and Rita from Finance.
Happy 10th anniversary to our Geneva center –the brick and mortar of our mission.
Debra, a volunteer at the Winnebago Community Market (WCM), took time from her shift to explain some of her story. “Two years ago, I was one of the clients, lined up outside. I pulled up, like everybody else, said, ‘thank you,’ and took off,” she says. “And I thought, this is a waste. I come here with my gas and my time, and they need help. So, I said, ‘Can I help?’”
She smiles. “I’ve been coming in two days a week, ever since. It’s been fun.”
Debra still shops for food at the WCM, which is operated by Northern Illinois Food Bank.
“(I’ve seen) so many different (kinds of food at) the food bank that as a consumer, I could never afford. I mean kiwi! And star fruit, and some of the fresh vegetables. Not only do they have them available, they show us how to use them and cook them!”
What would she say to others considering volunteering? “There’s nothing to it! Just come in with a smile. If you feel uncomfortable, we won’t let you be that way for long.”
“There is community in this kind of thing. Taking care of each other. That’s what we do—as The Community Market.”
Ed got his first taste of volunteering with the Food Bank about nine years ago in a small rural community in Grundy County.
“The year I retired, we had our big, annual managers meeting and we always did something for the community as a group, as part of the meeting. We were in a little tiny town, you know, less than a thousand people. We went up to help at a food pantry.”
He still remembers the numbers. “We gave out 8,600pounds of food that day to 100families. That shocked me. So many people in such a small town? That’s when I really started to become aware of food insecurity.”
“One of the families that came that day was an employee of ours. She brought her mom, who was in a wheelchair. I remember looking over at the truck and it said Northern Illinois Food Bank, Geneva. And I thought, that’s my hometown. I need to get involved.”
After retiring from a career in managing hotels, Ed came to the Food Bank and started pitching in at the warehouse and assisting with food rescue.
“When I started nine years ago, we had a goal of serving 12 million meals. Last year, the goal was 80 million —we ended up distributing over 100 million meals.” Ed shakes his head. “But there’s people who still don’t know about the level of need.”
Now a volunteer supervisor, Ed leads the volunteer team in Geneva distribution center. But his real passion is working food distributions such as the Mobile Market pop-ups in Elgin. Last May, he convinced his family to join him at the pop-up in Great America in Gurnee, where they served more than 1,900 families in need.
“When you see the appreciation on people’s faces, it feels so good.”
Ed finds allies everywhere. “I was out on the golf course recently and happened to get paired up with some guys who were organizing a fund-raiser for a local pantry. After the game, we were sitting down, enjoying an adult beverage, and our toast was ‘to ending hunger!’”
Cheers to that, Ed!
“Our life was very normal before the accident and then –Bam!”
Evetta knows the moment that changed her family forever. “When my husband had a massive car accident, we went from him working sixty hours a week to retired at home. We had to make difficult choices. Do we pay the gas bill, or do we put food on the table?”
Finding Wesley’s Table food pantry in Bradley, Illinois, was another moment of change.
“When we received food from Wesley’s Table it was one less thing I had to worry about—my kids were gonna be fed.”
The local church-run pantry, located just outside of Kankakee, receives donations from Northern Illinois Food Bank. Fresh vegetables, fruit and pantry items help families create healthy meals and manage their budget.
Evetta began volunteering at Wesley’s Table three years ago. Last year, she joined the staff. “Because of all I’ve been through, I am able to help anybody that comes through our pantry doors. There is no giving up.
“The pantry is me. This is who I am.”
Diana started her first day as Coordinadora de Despensa (Food Pantry Coordinator) at Spanish Community Center in Joliet two months before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives.
“When I took this job, I never expected to be helping so many people and making all the changes we’ve had to make because of COVID,” she says from the gym in the community center’s basement –the current location of the food pantry.
The room actually designated as the food pantry is on the second floor and too small for the increased volume of food they were moving. Volunteers had to climb the stairs repeatedly to access the food and bring it down to the contactless, drive-thru distributions held every Tuesday. So staff cordoned off the gym and set up pallets of food so volunteers could have more space to pack boxes and deliver them out the back door to waiting cars.
At the peak of the pandemic the pantry served over 300 households at each distribution, up from the 60-90 clients they were serving pre-pandemic. The numbers are down to 120, but still more than they had originally planned for.
Diana dreams of a large outdoor refrigerator/freezer to hold dairy, meats and proteins for their clients. She has other plans as well.
“Our clients love when we get fresh fruits, like apples and bananas, and vegetables. They are so appreciative of all the foods they receive,” she says. “Cultural foods too. Tortillas –we never have enough. Beans and rice. We’d love to offer spices and fresh herbs too.”
The community center is unique because Español is inherent in its name, attracting Spanish speakers from all over the region.
“Some churches will send people to us because of the language barrier. They know we can help because we speak Spanish here,” she says. Some of these faces have become familiar to the staff even though they do not live in Joliet. And some people are new to this country, trying to start a new life.
“We don’t require documentation or proof of income. We want to help anyone who comes in,” she says.
Besides providing food, the center offers programs in citizenship and immigration assistance, family advocacy, bilingual childcare, family law, housing and public benefits. It’s a lot work for a small team.
“I am so thankful to the staff here for stepping up during the crazy times of the pandemic, especially because at one point we had no volunteers and the staff had to run the pantry ourselves,” she says. “And we’re grateful for our volunteers, some who were once clients and have come back to volunteer because they love what we do here.”
“Returning to work at the Food Bank after a 20-year break has truly been a blessing,” says Scott, the manager at our North Suburban Center, Park City.
Although he was successful in the for-profit world, he felt he was definitely missing something from within. “Is what I am doing truly making a difference?” he asked himself. That answer was: No, it wasn’t. For a bottom line, for profit, for increased revenue, for promotion? The answer was: Yes. But satisfying a desire within to make a difference in someone’s life? The answer was: No.
And while he changed and grew during those 20 years he was gone, so, too, did the Food Bank. Northern Illinois Food Bank has grown up quite a bit and isn’t the new kid on the block any more in the Lake and McHenry service area. It is now well established with deep relationships, greater defined purpose and mission, and an internal structure beyond anything that was imagined 20 years ago.
Throughout the interview process and within his first few weeks on the job, he quickly realized that this was where he was meant to be, not just in his career, but also with his sense of purpose and mission in life.
“The new members of the team I have met, along with reacquainted friends, have truly inspired me by their sharing of their stories, compassion and commitment to feel that together we are serving those in hunger need in our communities,” he says.
“It’s good to be back. It’s good to be part of the team. It’s good to be home.”
“I’m a schoolteacher,” says Chris, who live near the Winnebago Community Market, in Rockford. “I knew about volunteering at the Northern Illinois Food Bank because some of my students have volunteered here.”
“When COVID hit last year, we’d have cars lined up from beginning to end. Someone would have to stand on the street and tell someone, ‘That’s it.’ Now, there’s a good feeling, not being really busy from the time we start, to the time we end—but knowing we have the volunteers who can handle it, if there was.”
Chris is also raising money for the food bank by joining the organization’s Chicago marathon team. “I set a goal to run a marathon before COVID. This year, I joined the team and I’ll raise twelve hundred dollars, at least.”
Interested in helping? Chris has advice.
“Sign up! Anytime you have available, even if it’s only once or twice. Bring a group, bring friends, bring kids. It really gives me a sense of well-being, doing something to help.”
Today, meet PepsiCo Aurora. Cheers to PepsiCo Aurora for their recent visit and tour of our Geneva distribution center and for helping us drive out hunger at our Hunger Scramble Golf Outing last month. Partnerships like the one we’re fortunate enough to have with PepsiCo are critical to our operations and to providing food and beverages to our neighbors in need.
“No need to be shy. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all in this together.”
Kristy and her mom have visited the My Pantry Express at the South Suburban Center of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, almost every week since it opened. “People think, well I’m not poor. I don’t need it. But [these pantries] are really expanding the variety of food and other things [they give.]
“I mean, everybody needs soap.”
“I have to tell you, I was an executive for many years. For me to come to a food bank? But it really helped me at the beginning. I was the product of a layoff because of the pandemic and have not been back to work yet. My family had to cut back,” Kristy said. “I’m trying to help [others also.]Normally, I’m picking up for several families. And I’m making sure my mother, who’s elderly, and her neighbors have what they need.”
“My husband and I are seniors who are finding it difficult to make ends meet. It is embarrassing for me to be here because I am a proud person. But I’m also a broke person,” said Lynda, a first-time visitor to one of Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry locations.
“I worked most of my life—since I was 16. I’m 71 now.”
A disability put Lynda on medical leave, then forced her to have surgery. Her husband lost his job at the start of the pandemic. Their lost income has been hard to manage.
“At this point, pride has to step aside. When there are people who can help out, it’s difficult, but you have to accept it.”
She expressed her gratitude to the volunteers and staff working the Mobile Pantry and added, “I hope they never have to find themselves hungry or homeless.
“I pray it never happens to you.”
“But wait, what is a chayote anyway?” Joey, Director of Barb Food Mart in DeKalb, asked herself that question when she first saw chayote being offered as a produce option to pantries by Northern Illinois Food Bank. Not in favor of easy online answers, Joey took a community-oriented approach to demystifying the often-overlooked chayote squash. She asked her neighbors for help.
“We like to offer a variety of produce, but sometimes it can feel like a risk,” Joey said. “No one wants to waste food. If a family wants to try something new, like chayote, but they know their child likes carrots, they will usually go for the safer option.”
After Joey ordered some chayote from the Food Bank, she considered ways to make the veggie a bit more approachable. A familiar face at her pantry who was excited to see chayote as a produce option gave Joey the idea to try exchanging recipes. Through social media, Joey spread the wealth of knowledge. “I shared some suggestions and tips from a regular, then other people started to respond too!” Joey smiles at the thought. “All those posts made me feel really happy. It was the magic that we are always hoping for — the community building, leaning on each other. No one is an expert. We all have something to contribute, and we all have something to receive.”
Want to know more about how fresh produce makes it to the local food pantries? Read “Getting farm to table faster” here.
“Every farmer knows how to grow corn. It’s easy.”
Jim Origer works in real estate with agriculture producers. He knows about farmers.
“When I first got involved with Northern Illinois Food Bank, I asked how much local produce was being distributed.”
The answer? Not much.
Jim decided to change that. “You really don’t need a lot. I found an acre of land, here and there. A few farmers to donate time prepping the field and planting,and at the end ofthe season, some volunteers to come out and pick corn.”
The idea took off. The Growing Initiative has been planting and harvesting corn for donation to local food banks for over ten years.
This year, they harvested four semi-truck loads of fresh-picked corn for donation.
“At the end of the day,” Jim said, “when the field is cleared, and you have a truckload of fresh food for people who are hungry, that’s the piece that amazes me.”
To learn more, visit The Growing Initiative Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thegrowinginitiative/.
“Every year our high school marching band does a progressive change drive. The students start by bringing in pennies, then nickels, dimes, quarters, and finally, folding money. Things got competitive this year—flutes versus trombones! —and it started to add up,” said Adam Gohr, Band Director for the Libertyville Marching Wildcats.
The student leadership team chose the Northern Illinois Food Bank for their collected donation after volunteering at a mobile food pantry in their community.
Adam, and his Co-Director, Matt Karnstedt, are proud of their students. “They raised $4054.86 for the Northern Illinois Food Bank!” With a bit of a wink, he added, “It’s the eighty-six cents that really puts us over the top.”
That’s progressive change!
The cars were bumper-to-bumper that rainy day at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, in Waukegan. Everyone was waiting to receive a box filled with fruit, vegetables, pantry staples and meat from a Northern Illinois Food Bank Mobile Market.
Luz rolled her van forward. Dressed in a coral t-shirt and a pink baseball cap embroidered with the words “All Good,” Luz was a bright light on a gray day.
“We moved here from Puerto Rico. We didn’t know a lot of things. Our next-door-neighbor introduced us to the pantries.” Luz’s family has on-going health challenges. “I am asthmatic, my husband is diabetic, and my son is Down’s Syndrome.
“All those medical bills? They mount up. These pantries help us working parents. It helps our budgets. Thanks to [pantries], we can spend less money on groceries, and pay our bills.”
Wednesday night is date night for Pat and Paul. After dinner, they head over to Northern Illinois Food Bank’s South Suburban Center in Joliet for a few hours of volunteering.
“My dad lived through the Great Depression. He started working at young age and worked every day for the rest of his life.” Paul teaches economics at DePaul University and food insecurity is his first lecture each semester. “Some of the students are startled by the inequities.”
Pat remembers hard times growing up, as well. “Now, we’ll look back and talk about it –how we ate pork and bean sandwiches, how my father would take the wing, so we could have the thigh. It must have been awful for my parents trying to make ends meet.
“When I pack food, I see where my contributions are going,” she said. “I can see I’m making a difference.”
As the Food Bank’s director of Agency Relations, Jacqui oversees the team that connects with the 900+ food pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs in our network to ensure they have the resources they need to serve their communities.
Jacqui is especially passionate about Hunger Action Month. For 9 years, she has worn a different orange outfit every day (including Sundays) during September. This year she’s even outfitted her new grandson.
“Orange is the color of hunger. If by wearing orange, I start a conversation about food insecurity in this country, then I’m doing my part to raise awareness about this important subject,” she says.
“My boys are getting free lunch in school because our school district received COVID funds. I want to contribute the value of their lunches to the Food Bank.”
“I live in a senior living residence. It’s a three-story building with a couple hundred people living here. [Northern Illinois Food Bank] comes here regularly to deliver, and it always seems to come at just the right time.”
-Pat, a DuPage County neighbor
Pat participates in the Food Bank’s Senior Grocery Program, which provides seniors with perishable and non-perishable staples on a routine basis.
“I use the Food Bank because it’s nutritious. Because it helps my budget.” She ticks off the practical reasons with ease. The last reason she offers makes her voice tighten with emotion. “It gives you a sense of security when you open the fridge and see healthy food there. It’s a real boost.”
Shirley remembers how difficult it was the first time she visited a food pantry.
“There’s a such a stigma about asking for help, but pride does not feed an empty stomach,” she says. “Circumstances happen. Nobody should feel bad about that.”
Eventually, Shirley found a good-paying job with a pharmaceutical company–so good that she was able to retire comfortably. Now, she volunteers with The Giving Point! food pantry in Lake County, a Northern Illinois Food Bank partner.
And she loves to share her story. “I’ve come full circle. It fills my heart with joy [when] people find peace with their decision to get help.”
Leroy had been struggling to control his diabetes.
Now, five months after being connected to Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Screen and Intervene initiative, his wife, Jackie, feels relieved. “His blood sugar is normal, and he is feeling much better,” she said. “Both of us are doing great and eating good food.”
His doctor agrees. “Access to healthy food played a large role in this improvement,” said Dr. Aubri Rush, from Hinsdale Family Medical Clinic. “The fresh vegetables and lean meats provided by the Food [Bank’s] truck are cornerstones of a healthy diabetic diet.”
“There for a while, it let up. But now, it’s picking back up again.” Judy Buchanow looked a little worried. She’s been working to feed her neighbors at the Lena-Winslow Food Pantry in rural Stephenson County throughout the pandemic.
Judy and her husband manage the pantry together with volunteers from a consortium of churches. Lena-Winslow Food Pantry also hosts Mobile Market food distributions with Northern Illinois Food Bank that reach neighbors closer to where they live.
Meanwhile, with recent funding from the Freeport Community Foundation, Judy says the pantry is keeping shelves stocked with nutritious food neighbors need to thrive. “Without [these] institutions, we could not keep enough food on the shelves to feed all our hungry neighbors.”
Our fiscal year ended in June, and it’s official: We have never provided more meals than we did last year! I’m so grateful for your help in responding to the tidal wave of need that swept through our community. You made this past year one for the record books.
While the need for food has decreased, we’re still seeing about 20% higher demand than we did before the COVID-19 crisis began. The good news is, we have learned so much from this experience. We are smarter, stronger, more capable—and we have a better understanding of what our neighbors need.
That’s really at the heart of what we want to do: ensuring that dignity, equity, and convenience are a part of every individual’s food pantry experience.
Our neighbors have shared that they need support that integrates with their life. That’s why, with your help, we’re now offering online ordering and doorstep delivery. These convenient options also help to eliminate stigma surrounding food assistance because they work just like most stores do.
Another vital focus area is selection. Upholding our neighbors’ dignity means offering foods that support a spectrum of ethnic and religious traditions, as well as dietary restrictions. The more our service feels like a trip to the grocery store, the better!
Thank you again for helping to shatter records this year. But most of all, thank you for helping our neighbors feel seen, and valued, and loved.