'We'll feed anyone': That's the motto at Aurora pantry where demand has more than quadrupled

  • Cat Battista, holding Cupcake the dog, poses with some of her staff members. Pantry clients have increased to 9,000 during the pandemic from 2,000 18 months ago when Battista became executive director.

      Cat Battista, holding Cupcake the dog, poses with some of her staff members. Pantry clients have increased to 9,000 during the pandemic from 2,000 18 months ago when Battista became executive director. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/9/2020 11:35 AM

The Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry served 2,000 people a week when Cat Battista became executive director 18 months ago.

Now it serves 9,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For the past two months during the coronavirus pandemic, the number of clients has grown for a handful of reasons: People have lost jobs and income. They've gained fears about contagion and exposure. They've realized they could be at higher risk if they are older or already in weakened health.

"We'll feed anyone -- no matter where they're from, no matter what their story is," said Battista, a former trial lawyer from St. Charles. "Our goal is to make sure everyone goes away with 100%."

By "100%," Battista means 100% of everything a family of five would need for meals to last about a week, with nutritional items following the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate guidelines.

"And we throw a couple of treats in there," she said. Because who doesn't like cookies?

In March, Battista and other pantry leaders wrote a pandemic response plan as they watched the new coronavirus affect more and more of the world. The plan has governed operations since March 17.

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Operations these days include two food distributions each week following a zero-contact model with a maximum of 40 staff members and volunteers inside the pantry building at any one time.

Cat Battista, holding Cupcake the dog, and her team at the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry work together to serve 9,000 clients each week with a box containing enough food to feed a family of five.
  Cat Battista, holding Cupcake the dog, and her team at the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry work together to serve 9,000 clients each week with a box containing enough food to feed a family of five. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Workers and volunteers pack weekly food boxes and work with police to line up vehicles in an overflow parking lot at nearby Aurora University. Cars then are allowed into the pantry lot 30 at a time. They're told to pop their trunks, then roll up their windows and keep them that way to avoid contact.

Teams of workers and volunteers -- including the executive director, who calls the process a great workout -- then get their steps in by walking to deliver one food box to each waiting trunk. There are typically 700 to 800 vehicles.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It can be fun because people on the team can get a little competitive about how quick they can fill the cars," Battista said.

Distribution takes three hours, from 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Wednesdays are reserved for donation drop-off from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Battista sometimes starts her work as early as 5 a.m.

She used to litigate nursing home abuse cases, stepping in after situations already had caused pain to try to find resolution. Now, Battista said, she finds her pantry work a fulfilling way to help out before something goes wrong, before food insecurity turns into malnutrition or worse.

"I decided I want to pursue what I call front-end justice instead of back-end justice," she said. "I liked the idea of working on the front lines and doing things that were more preventive."

Pantry crowds are starting to decrease, as Battista said clients might be regaining confidence in grocery stores.

But the pantry is always accepting help. To donate or view a shopping list of needed items, visit aurorafoodpantry.org.

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