Elgin food pantry is serving up holiday meal boxes, plus more dignity for its guests
Food for Greater Elgin makes store more welcoming
The holidays are an especially difficult time for people with food insecurity, so Food for Greater Elgin is stepping up by providing hundreds of Thanksgiving and Christmas meal boxes, among other initiatives spearheaded by the executive director hired less than two years ago.
About 10 volunteers on Friday assembled holiday boxes for Thanksgiving with 350 turkeys donated by Bath Planet in Streamwood and sides provided by the pantry, Executive Director Shelia Jackson said. They will be distributed this month at the pantry, 1553 Commerce Drive.
Another 350 ham meals for Christmas are being purchased from the Northern Illinois Food Bank and will be distributed in December.
"We think it's probably one of the most vulnerable times of your life not to be able to eat," Jackson said.
Jackson said she and other staff members have been trying new things and gradually implementing changes. Clients are now called "guests" and can shop weekly, instead of twice a month. The pantry has more of a grocery store feel, with food neatly arranged on shelves, and aisles organized by category. There are limited supplies of paper products, detergent, pet food and bath items as of this summer.
"The biggest stigma that comes with the food pantry, honestly, is (the perception) that people should just get jobs. Probably 75% to 80% of the people that come to our food pantry have jobs. Some of them have two," Jackson said. "We don't give handouts. We give a hand up."
The pantry is "client choice," meaning guests choose their own food. The wide selection of fresh produce, meat, dairy, dry and canned goods moves quickly into guests' shopping carts with few exceptions over the years, including cloud ear fungus, also known as black fungus, and clam juice, said director of operations Ray Fuentes.
Homeless residents used to get a preselected bag with the logic that they couldn't use food that needed refrigeration, but Jackson changed that, too.
"That's not our business. We don't make any type of discrimination," she said.
One challenge has been to manage the long lines that formed outside hours before the pantry opened, she said. Now, guests can get in line only 30 minutes before opening, and Jackson has cracked down on those who try to work around the pantry's numbering system.
The pantry serves about 110 families daily Monday through Thursday, up from 65 to 80 families, Jackson said. It also has a resource center where guests can meet with agencies that provide health, legal and other services.
There's also a mobile pantry serving seniors and the homeless. Overall, about 42% of people served are children and 13% are seniors, the latter up from 8% when Jackson took over, she said.
There are five full-time staff members, including two fluent in Spanish, and about 200 active volunteers, Jackson said, and she's in the process of filling three open positions, including director of philanthropy.
Funding comes from fundraising, grants and financial donations from individuals and businesses, and food donations from Amazon, Sam's Club, Jewel-Osco, Walmart, Target, U.S. Foods and many others, Jackson said. The food pantry does not receive state or federal funds, Jackson said.
Among the latest contributors to the cause are Joe and Melanie Koehnen, owners of Honest-1 Auto Care in South Elgin.
The business is running a food drive through Dec. 20 that allows customers to receive $1 -- up to a maximum of $20 -- in services for each can of food they donate.
The business also gives customers a match of up to $20 in services when people donate directly to Food for Greater Elgin and bring in proof of donation.
"I was just amazed about what they do," said Melanie Koehnen, who toured the food pantry recently. "I feel like they do so much more than help provide food for the family."
Board Chairman Mike Warren, who's been on the board since the food pantry launched in January 2011, said the pantry has become more efficient, with a concerted effort to provide healthier food options.
"The whole way we deliver our services is evolving from the basic pantry where you walk in and get a box of food, to treating our guests with more dignity and more options," he said.
Jackson said she'd like to expand the agency's service area, but most of all, she wants more people to use it.
"Just because people are food insecure, it doesn't mean they should not have what they need," she said.
If you want to donate or volunteer for Food for Greater Elgin visit foodforgreaterelgin.org or call (847) 931-9330.