Neighbor Melissa, “I don’t feel judged”

Every Friday afternoon, Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Highwood Mobile Market distributes nutritious food to neighbors in the community facing hunger. During a recent visit to the mobile market, we saw a long line of families, seniors, and individuals waiting in the cold to get milk, chicken, tortillas, potatoes, and much more.  

One of those neighbors was Melissa from Waukegan. Melissa, a single mom to a one-year-old, has been coming to the Highwood mobile market for the last several months. Like so many other families, Melissa said the increasing cost of food has made it difficult for her to get groceries and pay her monthly bills. “It’s been really hard, and I worry a lot. Being food insecure has affected my self-confidence and makes me feel bad,” said Melissa.  

She said finding a consistent place that provides nutritious food and essential goods has had a positive impact on her. “It’s been a relief to know I can come here and get food for my family, and I don’t feel judged.” 

Melissa said she is happy about the variety of offerings at the mobile market. ” “Today there is milk which will help me feed my baby right now, and that is good. One time I got the baby back ribs, and my family was like wow,” adding, “I always get the potatoes, and whenever I get cereal, my baby is happy.”  

Getting a little help during tough times has been a comfort that Melissa is grateful for. “Knowing I can come here to get food makes me feel happy because it helps a lot,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the volunteers and donors who support this mobile market.” 

Volunteer Nadine, I love people!

Meet Nadine, a spirited presence at Winnebago Community Market (WCM), whose dedication and enthusiasm infuse this community with joy and energy. “I love people; I love keeping busy and trying to stay young,” Nadine says with a smile. Introduced to the WCM by her granddaughter, Nadine has been volunteering for about 18 months. “My granddaughter was volunteering with her school and asked me if I would join her. I said absolutely! During her shifts, Nadine keeps the pantry’s bread and pastry sections stocked and organized and ensures the neighbors find what they want.

“Volunteering at the Winnebago Community Market excites me; I love it! I am so happy that my granddaughter got me involved in this. It’s me, I love people!” she exclaims. Describing this experience as “fulfilling to the max,” Nadine values her time at WCM, adding, “It’s impacted my life by seeing what others really, really need and how I can help them in whatever way I try.”

Nadine warmly talks about how many good, “neat people” neighbors and fellow volunteers she’s met. She encourages others to get involved in their communities and to find something they are passionate about supporting. To newcomer food pantry volunteers, she offers simple yet profound words: “This is going to be a fabulous experience. Keep a smile on your face, treat people the way you would wish to be treated, and love it. Just keep smiling.” Vibrant and compassionate, Nadine reminds us that many people carry heavy challenges every day that may impact their mental well-being. “A lot of people are depressed nowadays, so if you can offer a smile, people love it.” With a wry smile, she adds, “Or wear a fancy shirt,” gesturing to her bright yellow, heart-adorned Tweety Bird t-shirt.

Finally, when asked about donors who support the pantry, Nadine expresses gratitude: “Thank you for the hearts that you have. It fills my heart when I see those who have donated. It is so special, and it is precious.” Nadine’s story reminds us that we all can help build community and look out for our neighbors. Her energy and dedication to serving others inspire us all.

Neighbor Cliff, The Spirit of the Community

We met with Clifford at the Salvation Army food pantry in Kankakee, Illinois, to talk about the challenges his family has faced and the positive role the food and healthy eating services provided by the Northern Illinois Food Bank have played in their life. “With what I make, I could never afford to get the food we need at the grocery stores,” shared Clifford.  

Clifford was sidelined from his career as a plumber in good standing with his local union due to a physical disability incurred on the job. “We had to move cast iron tubs up to the second floor of homes [being renovated],” said Clifford, adding, “After that, my back was shot, and I had to get a three-level fusion.” A spinal fusion is a surgical procedure that links spinal vertebrae to stabilize the back.  

Since his injury and surgery about 20 years ago, Clifford—a married father of three—has relied on disability to support his family. His oldest son is studying to be a doctor, and his two other children are 19 and 16 years old and reside at home.  

While Clifford and his family do supplement the food they receive at food banks with trips to the grocery store, he said if community pantries weren’t available, it would affect us because we depend on all of them to help us out,” adding, “I can’t believe the prices on some food today.”  

Not only does everyone deserve the food they need to thrive, but opportunities to access essential resources should be convenient and welcoming. Clifford reflected on his food bank experiences, “They are good people here. They’re nice and treat you with respect, like a human being instead of somebody needy.”  

Of course, continuing to support food distributions and consistently providing healthy food for our neighbors depends on the community’s generosity of volunteer time and financial support.  

“I’m appreciative of what people donate, and I want to thank everyone who donates to this cause because it not only helps me and my family, but it helps so many others,” said Clifford, who often thinks about those who have even greater struggles. “There are people who are homeless and who need more support, even more than me. If I see that, I’d rather have them have it, and I’ll go without a little bit.”  

That spirit of community to care for one another helps create a safety net for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity. 

Celebrating 1,000 Online Orders with OrderAhead!

OrderAhead (OA) is an online ordering tool from Feeding America. Four agencies (St. John Lutheran Church Food Pantry, Neighbor Food Pantries – Family in Faith Church Food Pantry, Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry, and H.E.A.L. Riverwalk Food Pantry) have started their distributions using the OA website. Their programs were developed with the support of the Northern Illinois Food Bank Innovation Team and Feeding America. With almost 60 distributions, the agencies have seen nearly 1400 orders with a 96% pickup rate. We are hoping to launch a second round of OrderAhead agencies in March.  Below are some stories from our agencies in St. John, Family in Faith Church, Aurora Interfaith, and H.E.A.L. Riverwalk.

Northern Illinois Food Bank Growth Dashboard

Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry

Aurora Interfaith Team picking, packing and prepping individual order labels for delivery

Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry started online ordering in September 2023. Aurora choose to transition an existing program called Pantry to Go. The program organizes the delivery of a supplemental food box to neighbors who are homebound and unable to come to the pantry for food distribution. Delivery is fulfilled request that fall within a 10-mile radius. Auora has been able to increased convenience and choice for neighbors by moving it online.  Marcy Robles, Volunteer Coordinator, describes why they chose OrderAhead:

“Being able to offer choices for our neighbors who receive delivery has been a big improvement. OrderAhead has enhanced our delivery program.”

St. John Lutheran Church Food Pantry  

Heather and St. John OrderAhead Team

St. John Food Pantry launched their OrderAhead program in September 2023. Director, Heather Hinthorn, describes the impact online ordering can have on neighbors to increase access:

 “A neighbor recently pulled me aside and gave me a big hug. She was proud to say she planned to never see me again! She was able to return to work after taking a leave of absence to care for his husband after he was in a serious accident at work. Before visiting our pantry for the first time using OrderAhead, a friend of hers had to walk her through asking for help. She had never been in a situation like this before.  With tears in her eyes, she shared with me how hard it was to walk into our pantry the first time, but that OrderAhead made the experience a positive one. She was so thankful to be able to choose her groceries online and pick them up quickly at our pantry. 

For some families, visiting a food pantry is a long-term solution to meet their needs and we are proud to serve them each week. For some, they may only visit once and we never see them again, but we are proud to share an abundance of healthy food options. We are so proud to offer any neighbor that needs us the opportunity to access fresh produce, meal kits, milk, eggs, meat, and pantry staples with kindness and care. OrderAhead helps us do this in a very special way and mimics the online ordering one would experience with any major retailer. It’s an incredible resource for our neighbors.” 

Family and Faith Church, of Neighborhood Food Pantries

Brian Ratliff overlooking OrderAhead orders.

Family and Faith Church began online ordering in September of 2023.  Like St. John, they also provide a pickup distribution experience every Wednesday evening. Food Pantry Manager, Brian Ratliff, describes the impact that online ordering has to provide convenience and fight the stigma some neighbors feel with the charitable food network:

 “Our goal is to provide food to neighbors in need with dignity. There also are people in need who would struggle with turning to a food pantry for help. OrderAhead is very private, and the guest is able to pick up their order without entering the pantry.”

OrderAhead is a great choice for people who are comfortable with computers and have internet access. It helps us too because it means 20 people fewer standing in line at the pantry.  Many of our guests work and don’t earn enough to provide enough food to meet their family’s needs. Now they can use OrderAhead and pick up on their way home.”

Holsten Human Capital Development’s H.E.AL. Riverwalk Food Pantry

Martha Barrios, Food Pantry Coordinator, and H.E.A.L OrderAhead Team

Holsten Human Capital Development’s H.E.A.L. Pantry introduced the “OrderAhead” online option in January 2024.  According to Elizabeth Protich, Program Manager, H.E.A.L designed OrderAhead:

“To assist individuals with busy schedules or those who find it challenging to stand in line for extended periods of time. This initiative aligns with HHCD’s commitment of ensuring access to nutritious food options, particularly aiming to support families in preparing wholesome meals and individuals with specific medical dietary requirements. By leveraging this service, users can conveniently select from a range of healthy food items online, thereby simplifying the process of obtaining essential nutrition without the need to physically wait in line. This forward-thinking approach not only enhances accessibility but also aligns with our overarching mission to foster a healthier community by making nutritious food more obtainable for everyone, especially those in critical need of special dietary consideration. 

Holsten Human Capital Development (HHCD) further enriches its H.E.A.L. Pantry “OrderAhead” initiative by offering comprehensive training and assistance through their Holistic Health Resource Program, aimed at individuals who may not be computer-savvy but are eager to utilize the “OrderAhead” online option. This thoughtful inclusion ensures that everyone, regardless of their technological proficiency, has the opportunity to benefit from this service. By providing personalized guidance, HHCD not only facilitates the transition to digital ordering for those unfamiliar with online systems but also prioritizes privacy, allowing individuals to select their healthy food options discreetly and at their convenience. This extension of support exemplifies HHCD’s dedication to inclusivity and privacy, ensuring that all community members have equal access to nutritious food while maintaining their dignity and independence.”  

According to a recent neighbor using OrderAhead:

“Thanks to OrderAhead, I can now get healthy food for my kids without waiting in long lines after work.  Once I learned how to order on my phone it was fast and easy. This program has been a huge help.”

The Future of Online Ordering

The Northern Illinois Food Bank plans to expand online ordering through OrderAhead to an additional 5-7 agencies this spring, providing more certainty and consistency around online ordering options for neighbors.  The Food Bank’s goal is to see 10 million meals distributed annual from online ordering from OrderAhead, it’s online ordering program My Pantry Express, and other non-OrderAhead agency online ordering programs.  With agencies like St. John, Family in Faith, Aurora, and H.E.A.L, we are well on our way to meeting that need.

Volunteer Dan, Giving Back to the Community

A long-time resident of Highland Park, Dan has been volunteering at the Highwood Mobile Market for about a year. Reflecting on the impact volunteering at the pantry has had on him, Dan says the experience “puts many things in perspective.”  

The father of two high school students, Dan’s volunteering has become a family affair. “I enjoy it, and I also bring my kids so they can give back directly to the community, to the local community,” says Dan. Growing up, Dan recalls that doing something for others, for your community, was mostly about giving money.  

He’s quick to note that financial support is essential but also meaningful for him and an important example to set for his kids is to impact others directly. “To be able to give back is to make a difference, and there are plenty of ways to do that, and this is just one of them.”  

Dan shares that he likes to put the neighbors at ease and sometimes greets them with a joke. He wants people to know no one is judging them, adding, “If they need help, they can have help.” To the delight of the kids visiting the market, Dan brings a bright red wagon to help neighbors easily transport groceries to their cars. The kids love pulling the wagon, as evidenced by the big smile that came across one boy’s face when he saw Dan. 

“Seeing an organization that helps 300 families every week is pretty cool,” Dan says with a smile and a sense of awe. “When kids want to complain about something, I remind them about how rough things can get for people. That’s where the difference is made.”  

For more information, Market dates, and to volunteer at a Highwood Mobile Market, click here

About Highwood Mobile Market:  Twice a month, Northern Illinois Food Bank distributes nutritious food to neighbors in the community facing hunger. Operating its Mobile Market out of the Fort Sheridan Metra Station parking lot, there is always a long line of individuals and families waiting to get milk, chicken, tortillas, potatoes, and other staples. 

Senior Neighbor, Carol, Encourages Program Use

We met Carol at a Senior Mobile in Rockford, IL. Carol is a resident of Greencastle of Mulford residential community. 

Carol, a resident at Greencastle of Mulford senior living facility, worked for social service organizations and is now retired. In her working life, Carol was committed to social service, which helped many people but didn’t pay a lot, leaving her with fewer savings for retirement.  

Carol appreciates the senior mobile Food Bank because it reaffirms her and her values. “Sometimes programs make you feel like you haven’t made enough money for yourself. This program doesn’t make me feel that way.”  

Carol also appreciates the convenience of the on-site food distribution. “For a while, I had a health issue, which made it very difficult to get to the store. Now I don’t have to leave the building, especially on a day like today when it’s so hot. Or in the winter, when it’s so cold.” 

Mostly, Carol takes food that she can use. If she has extra, she shares it with her daughter who is single and works by commission (so sometimes money is very tight). It makes Carol feel good to help her daughter when she doesn’t have a lot of her own cash to share. 

Carol encourages other residents to use the senior mobile program, “I’ll meet you at the door and then we can go through the mobile Food Bank together.” Carol was happy to see a new neighbor at the food distribution in her building. 

Based on her own work experience, Carol really appreciates the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s work and organization that goes into making the senior mobiles possible. “I understand what goes into getting this all together and I’m quite impressed.” 

Why Jennifer Lamplough, Chief Impact Officer, Became a Food Banker

I became a food banker because I had a student named Terrence.

I was teaching culinary arts at a local college and Terrence was in the first class I ever taught.

Terrence was a terrible cook. Worse than terrible. Couldn’t follow a recipe. Didn’t know the
difference between broccoli and celery. Didn’t care about the fundamentals of hospitality, at all.
Day after frustrating day, I wondered why on earth Terrence was enrolled in a culinary
arts program.

One day I snapped at him when he presented me with what was supposed to be silky smooth
cream of asparagus soup and what I got was tepid vegetable broth with three charred pieces of
asparagus in it. “Terrence!” I barked, pushing his bowl of whatever-that-was away from me,
“Why are you in this program? You clearly can’t do this and don’t even try that hard!”

He hung his head in shame and told me it was because he knew he would eat.

Gut punch.

Terrence didn’t have enough food to eat growing up, and still didn’t as a young adult. He was on
scholarship and knew if he enrolled in culinary, he would eat each day.

He knew he would eat.

Those words haunt me to this day and cause shame to boil inside me at the way I treated him.
I made assumptions and judgements about him and was endlessly frustrated with him and his
performance in class because I thought he just didn’t care.

I looked around my class and saw a lot of Terrences. I vowed that day to teach them all to cook if
it killed me. I wish I could say Terrence turned a corner, became a great cook and graduated with
honors. Sadly, like many college students out on their own, he couldn’t afford to stay in school,
even with scholarships to cover tuition.

I didn’t officially become a food banker until 11 years later when I joined the team at
Northern Illinois Food Bank
. I didn’t even know what a food bank was back then. Lucky for
me, right?

In my heart, though, I became a food banker in that moment and I vowed to help each student
learn to earn a better living if they could. Learn how to cook a good meal for their families. Learn
that I was there for them and that I would pretend to be busy so they could wrap up the leftovers
from class that they were supposed to throw away for “liability reasons.” Learn that they mattered and that there is no shame in admitting needing help. Learn that some people do care, and
won’t judge you because you can’t make ends meet.

Right now, the need for food is astronomically high. We are serving more people each month now
than we were at the height of the pandemic. You can read endless articles and research about
how high that need is and how hard it is to get enough food to feed everyone. It’s real, and
it’s tragic.

Food. A fundamental human right. Not a luxury. Imagine fighting every day to figure out how you
are going to put food on the table. Imagine waiting in line for hours to get a couple of bags of
groceries just to be able to pack your kid’s lunch. Imagine getting tears in your eyes because you
were able to get fresh grapes at the food pantry. Imagine having to decide to waste your
scholarship on a program you don’t even like just so you know you’d eat. Imagine. Can you even?
I can because I’ve seen it.

You don’t have to work at a food bank to become a food banker. It’s really easy, actually. Donate
money. Donate food. Donate time. Don’t make assumptions about people. Believe them when
they say they need help and don’t make them prove it.

Want to become a food banker today? Click the link below to donate to Northern Illinois Food
Bank and help us ensure every neighbor of ours…yours…has the food they need to thrive.


Julie Yurko’s November Letter

Our neighbors need nourishing food every single day. We’re serving the community every single day. Which might make you ask — why is providing food during the holidays so important?

Maybe it’s because our mission is about more than food. It’s also about community and connections. 

During the holiday season, we offer our Holiday Meal Box Program. Holiday Meal Boxes start with the community. Our donors help to fund them, and our volunteers help put them together! This program started in 1999 with 3,250 Holiday Meal Boxes given to neighbors in need, and it’s been going strong ever since, growing to meet the need. This year our goal is to provide 50,600 Holiday Meal Boxes. 

These food packages are one of the ways we help neighbors feel connected to their community and celebrate holidays, which can be a precious time with family. 

Think about your own family. It’s such a special time of year, across so many faith and cultural traditions. My children are grown now, so they aren’t always around. I love to get them home for the holidays whenever I can! 

But that’s not the only reason holiday giving is important. The need for food is also very high at this time of year. Let’s keep working together to meet that need and show our commitment to serving our community. Please make a holiday gift today if you can!


Julie Yurko President & CEO

Make a gift today!

For every $1 donated, Northern Illinois Food Bank is able to provide $8 worth of groceries to help a neighbor thrive. Every donation makes a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.

Meals on the Move, Summer 2023

It was another fun summer of Meals on the Move, serving more than 5,000 free lunches to kids in Aurora and distributing over 14,300 pounds of produce!

For our sixth year, we tried something a little different. Historically the summer lunch program has served kids one location at a time, often starting at 10am and finishing at 3pm. However, we found that the parks where we served meals outside of traditional lunch times had the lowest attendance. This year, to maximize the best part of the day, we served lunch at four different parks – two locations at a time – between 11am and 1:30pm.

We were happy to return to Phillips Park and McCarty Park, where it’s always fun to see kids playing in the splashpads. We also added two new locations to our route. It had been a few years since there was a stop in the northeast part of the city. Garfield Park is a great location as it’s central to several different neighborhoods, and has a playground, a shelter, and access to parking. 

William V Plum Park is a smaller neighborhood park that we chose because it’s located in a part of the city with a high density of families with children.  Early in the summer, a parent at Plum Park told us that usually the park was pretty empty, but that now her son enjoyed coming to get lunch and see his school friends.  Since we started serving lunches there every weekday, the park became abuzz with local families – sitting at the picnic tables, eating lunches in the shade, kids playing on the playground.  This sense of community within the neighborhood was everything we want Meals on the Move to be!

In addition to serving lunches for kids, it was also our second summer offering Friday Fresh Mart where families can take home fresh produce.  We know that produce can be some of the most expensive items at the grocery store and consequently the first to be left off the shopping list.  Our goal has been to help meet this need and provide a variety of produce for families to take home each week.  We sought to offer common staples, such as onions and potatoes, as well as items families might not have tried before, like spaghetti squash.  Not to mention fun favorites like pineapple and watermelon!

We have learned over the past two summers that Friday Fresh Mart provides a valued resource for families in Aurora. When it’s been too hot or rainy for kids to come eat lunch in the parks, parents still come out to pick up produce to take home. Friday Fresh Mart also provides non-perishable meals for kids to eat over the weekend, allowing us to offer lunch for kids seven days a week.

Overall, it was one of our best summers yet, reaching hundreds of families across the city! Planning for next summer is about to begin, and we’re excited to see what 2024 has in store.

The Difference You Make

A Team Member’s Perspective

450,000 neighbors served monthly – thanks to leaders like Yvette, every experience is extraordinary!

Would you know how to explain the difference between a food bank and a food pantry?

We know this can sound confusing, but it’s really quite easy to explain. Northern Illinois Food Bank supplies groceries to a network of 900 outlets across our 13-county service area, including soup kitchens, after-school programs, Backpack distributions, and more. But the majority of our neighbors access groceries through our network of about 400 agencies and food pantries. We recently spoke with one of our team members, Yvette Sellers, who shared her insight.

“Northern Illinois Food Bank is a lot like an actual bank,” she says. “Except instead of money, we obtain, process, and distribute the food that our network of food pantries provides for the neighbors who use their services.” Yvette continues, “Most food pantries serve their immediate neighborhoods. They are right in their own community, meeting the needs of their neighbors. The Food Bank helps keep the shelves stocked in those food pantries so no one has to go hungry.” We asked Yvette to tell us more about her work as our Agency Relations Area Leader for our Northwest counties. “I like to be able to help my community, and my community is not just where I live. It’s all five counties that I serve within my region.”

What does a typical workday look like for her?

Yvette laughs, “No two days are the same. I might be at a Mobile Market in the morning, and then doing administrative work in the afternoon, or visiting a partner agency. “It’s really inspiring and exciting to see the work they’re doing, and the enthusiasm of the agencies and the pantry directors and their volunteers. They are constantly innovating and sharing with other agencies about what they’re doing in their communities – ideas ranging from food safety to distribution schedules that work best for those we’re serving.” We asked Yvette if there was anything she’d like to say to our donors and volunteers. “It’s two simple words: Thank you! We see the difference you make every day for children, families, seniors and other neighbors, and we’re very grateful to you!”