Her own experiences help Yurko be the voice of those in need at Northern Illinois Food Bank

  • The Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank helps serve 350,000 people, including 100,000 children. "It's absolutely sobering to think that in the suburbs of Chicago that there can be that kind of need," says Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko.

      The Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank helps serve 350,000 people, including 100,000 children. "It's absolutely sobering to think that in the suburbs of Chicago that there can be that kind of need," says Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva.

      Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva.

      Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Christian Stenken inventory manager at Northern Illinois Food Bank Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva.

      Christian Stenken inventory manager at Northern Illinois Food Bank Friday December 3, 2021 in Geneva. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/20/2021 5:03 PM

How Julie Yurko returned to the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom shapes her work as CEO and president of the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

It was during the Great Recession of 2007-08, and -- through no fault of their own, she emphasized -- her family faced a sudden loss of income. Their savings helped them get through that tough time, but savings alone weren't enough. They found organizations willing to help when they needed it most.

 

It was during that time that Yurko went to work at the Geneva-based food bank. She carries the memories of that tough time every time she goes into the field to help at a distribution event or visits the food bank's satellite operations in Joliet, Rockford and Waukegan.

"It gives me empathy for the person we are trying to help," she said. "I think there are lots of misconceptions around families who don't have enough and who need to ask for some help.

"And I have the privilege of being their voice and I share my story and I can share stories that I've heard and hopefully remove some of the stigma that people feel when they need a little help and hopefully remove some of the judgment that others might have who don't have the expertise."

Yurko's ability to be the voice of those less fortunate is just one of the reasons that she has been named one of the Daily Herald Business Ledger's 2021 Influential Women in Business.

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A large operation

There's much more to Yurko's work in charge of the Northern Illinois Food Bank than giving voice to its neighbors in need, of course.

The food bank employs a staff of 150 and relies on more than 20,000 volunteers to help it distribute 100 million meals in the fiscal year that ended July 1. It operates on a budget of $220 million, most of it in the value of the food it distributes. More than 60 million pounds of food was donated, much of it from companies such as Jewel, Meijer, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Del Monte, Nestle and General Mills.

All told the food bank works with 350 food pantries across 13 counties and roughly 7,000 square miles in northern Illinois, including the suburban counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will. The Greater Chicago Food Depository covers Cook County.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank helps serve 350,000 people, including 100,000 children. That represents a 20% increase from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's absolutely sobering to think that in the suburbs of Chicago that there can be that kind of need," she said.

Hunger often is thought of as an urban problem, but Yurko has learned differently.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The honest-to-God truth is hunger is everywhere, and for us, the rural areas, it is harder to meet the need in the rural areas because we often don't have as many food pantries," Yurko said. "Folks often have to travel a farther distance to get help. It's actually pretty challenging out in the rural areas."

For that reason the food bank is always looking to innovate, trying to find new, effective ways to serve food-insecure people throughout a large region.

The food bank continues to work on ways for clients to pick their own food. It's important to be able to choose what they want, and, just as importantly, what they don't want.

"There's a whole lot of dignity in that," Yurko said.

The food bank also has begun working with DoorDash to deliver food to those in need, many of whom are homebound. DoorDash compensates its drivers for each delivery.

It's just one of the many ways in which the food bank works with the business community. There also are many vendor partnerships to provide things like cardboard boxes, help maintain trucks and make sure the food bank buildings in have what they need.

Companies also coordinate opportunities for employees to volunteer, and they offer in-kind services for free or at a greatly reduced cost.

A passion for nonprofits

Yurko was a natural fit for the food bank. She has spent her career in the nonprofit world, working at Brookfield Zoo, Lurie's Children's Hospital and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She jokes that her colleagues don't work at the food bank for fame and fortune. People seek jobs there because, like her, they share a passion for the mission, which explains why they often work six days a week, going out to the field for distribution events or fundraisers.

"With us we have (motivation) in spades, right," she said. "We go home at night and know someone has been fed because of the work we've done. But you still need to provide as a leader that clear vision and inspiration for the team. You also need to hold the team accountable.

"And so setting clear goals that help the organization stretch, but not too far. It's important to set those goals against that vision and that inspiration."

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