West Suburban Community Pantry looks back: Hunger in the Year of COVID
It has been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In March of last year, West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridges had just announced the Access 2020 initiative to double their capacity to serve by reconfiguring their physical space to help launch online ordering for families in need in DuPage and Will counties. Designs were done, the order software was under construction and fundraising was underway.
The pantry had just celebrated its 140 volunteers, among them many retirees and a handful of students who kept the pantry running smoothly week after week, delivering to remote sites, picking up groceries at food partners across the region, sorting produce, stocking our shelves, and assisting clients to 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 didn't stop with the shutdown was the need for food. Within days, it was apparent that the demand would eclipse anything the pantry had seen before. At the same time, health department guidelines dictated that the Pantry Store be closed, and older volunteers stay home. Pantry safety protocols were redoubled.
With layoffs rampant and children sent home from school, demand for food ballooned.
The pantry shifted to pre-boxed food readied to fill the trunks of hundreds of cars that lined up day by day. Moving companies and big box stores donated boxes. Volunteers sewed dozens of masks for pantry workers as PPE was scarce.
The limited volunteer crew was joined by staff and family members struggling to keep up with demand. Volunteers and staffers whose job it was to collect food donations from local grocers were met with teary-eyed store managers who reported their shelves were all but bare -- there was nothing left to donate.
"I am so grateful for the flexibility and positivity of our volunteers. From those who answered last-minute requests to pack boxes, to those who are working hard from home helping us keep our records updated; volunteers who sort produce before the sun rises and those who drive long routes to make sure we pick up donations, it all has aided the collective focus on our mission to feed the hungry," says Volunteer Coordinator Rebecca Boland.
All the while, the line of cars of people seeking help stretched from the Woodridge pantry's site on Hobson Valley Drive all the way out to Hobson Road and Route 53. Local police helped manage traffic. The pantry served 67% more people during the first four months of the pandemic.
The demand for food for families of Irene King Elementary School in Romeoville, where West Suburban maintains an in-school pantry grew from an average 30 families to 80. The pantry continued to provide food to families served by Bridge Communities and DuPage PADS whose newfound self-sufficiency was threatened by the challenges of the pandemic.
"Overall, we have seen the need for meals increase by up to 50%," says Laura Coyle, Executive Director. "Incredibly, we've served over 15,000 additional people during the pandemic. But week by week donations of food and funds began to grow. Volunteers have been able to come back. That has helped us act quickly and safely."
In the meantime, the Pantry's longer-term goals did not take a back seat. "We knew that this demand was just confirmation that the need was much greater than we were currently meeting. Research indicates that nearly 70% of people in need don't come to a food pantry due to lack of transportation, time, or simply pride," says Coyle. "That's why launching Access 2020 was so important. We are on a mission to break down barriers to food access by intentionally developing methods that reach families where they are, and in ways that treat them with dignity. This was not the time to scuttle our plans."
Throughout the summer, as drive-up boxed service continued, construction on the new pantry client services areas and warehouse continued. The Online order service and pickup area was created. Only the Pantry Store construction was held back, as that space was needed to pack the hundreds of boxes of food needed each week. The pantry received donations of fresh produce from community gardens, toiletries and staples from local service clubs and Costco runs by local families. As customer hoarding decreased, local grocery partners were able to donate again. The pantry delivered food to the doors of seniors unable to leave home.
By year's end, the pantry was able to give away over 550 turkeys and 100 hams and allow 400 families to receive toys, books, and stocking stuffers for Christmas.
The Access 2020 initiative is now underway to give clients the choice of foods while ordering their groceries privately and conveniently online. "Added online order pickup sites throughout our service area; and the redesign of our facilities will enhance both the Online and the in-pantry shopping experience for our clients," Coyle said. "While demand continues, we have learned so much about how vital our plan is. We cannot wait for the day when we can open the doors to our bright new Pantry Store. In the meantime, we are committed to using our new Online order remote delivery system as well as the pre-boxed drive-up service to feed our neighbors."
The West Suburban Community Pantry served 67,164 individuals from throughout Woodridge, Bolingbrook, Lisle, Naperville, Westmont, Willowbrook and areas of Will County in 2020. A total of 602 volunteers donated over 31,550 hours to feed the hungry.
"I'm immensely proud of how the organization lived our values of being people-focused with a 'can-do' spirit," Coyle said. "We turned on a dime to safely serve our neighbors in need and increase our capacity. Meanwhile, we kept on track with our strategic initiatives and capital project. It's herculean what this team achieved in a pandemic year. I have faith that with the continued help of our Board, volunteers and donors, we can rise to the growing need in even greater ways in the coming years."