'Our shelves are getting depleted': Food pantries seek donations to meet coronavirus demand

  • Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteers Candy Thoke, left, of St. Charles and Natalie Netcher, 16, of Geneva, package cabbages into smaller bags, some of which went into 1,250 "emergency boxes" of food and cleaning supplies that will be distributed to the food bank's agency network. Thoke has volunteered at NIFB for 22 years, and Netcher said she'd been doing it off and on since she was 8 years old.

      Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteers Candy Thoke, left, of St. Charles and Natalie Netcher, 16, of Geneva, package cabbages into smaller bags, some of which went into 1,250 "emergency boxes" of food and cleaning supplies that will be distributed to the food bank's agency network. Thoke has volunteered at NIFB for 22 years, and Netcher said she'd been doing it off and on since she was 8 years old. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Diane McKillip of Woodridge takes a cart loaded with food out to a client at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge.

      Volunteer Diane McKillip of Woodridge takes a cart loaded with food out to a client at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteers wear gloves while working on the assembly line packing food for clients Wednesday in Geneva. Gloves have always been available for volunteers and were used in some areas, but now are mandatory in all stages of the process.

      Northern Illinois Food Bank volunteers wear gloves while working on the assembly line packing food for clients Wednesday in Geneva. Gloves have always been available for volunteers and were used in some areas, but now are mandatory in all stages of the process. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/20/2020 6:43 AM

The next time shoppers reach for more rolls of toilet paper or cans of food, Laura Coyle wants them to think about people who can't afford to stash away extra supplies.

Coyle runs one of the suburban food pantries facing a series of challenges from the coronavirus crisis. With far fewer volunteers, many have switched to drive-through services, but they're struggling to meet an unexpected surge in demand driven by the outbreak's toll on the economy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Pantries are increasingly seeking food and financial donations, but they're also urging shoppers to stop panic buying in grocery stores -- a major source of their own supply.

"We're all in a place of uncertainty and everybody's feeling anxious, but we all also want to be good neighbors and do what we can to help, and one of the best ways to do that is to buy only what you need and only what you know you can use," Coyle said.

"If you want to buy extra, maybe buy extra and donate it to a food pantry because we're really going to need those supplies."

Donations from grocery stores account for about 50% of the items stocking the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. But those donations are drying up as a result of consumer stockpiling, said Coyle, the executive director.

"Our shelves are getting depleted," she said.

Volunteer John Henry of St. Charles stacks crates of food at the Northern Illinois Food Bank West Suburban Center in Geneva Wednesday.
  Volunteer John Henry of St. Charles stacks crates of food at the Northern Illinois Food Bank West Suburban Center in Geneva Wednesday. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
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To stave off shortages, the pantry has, on its own, bought eggs and canned goods from retailers. The pantry also needs cardboard boxes to distribute food through a new drive-through. Online donations can be made through its website, wscpantry.org.

"We're really, really low on canned vegetables specifically and canned fruits, but any dry goods are really greatly appreciated at this time," Coyle said.

Before the outbreak hit, the pantry would serve about 300 to 350 families in an average week. Now, it's on track to provide groceries for 500 families, "if not more," Coyle said.

What's behind the demand? College students whose campuses have shut down also have lost their food service program, Coyle said.

Families are trying to have more resources at home as elementary and high school closings disrupt meals for their children.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We do know that people are concerned that they don't know for sure if they're going to be getting paid," Coyle said. "Some of our clients are concerned that if they miss work because of child care issues or even themselves getting sick that they could potentially lose their job."

Volunteer Diane McKillip of Woodridge loads a car with groceries at a new drive-up service at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. The nonprofit organization and other suburban food pantries are seeing a significant increase in users as a result of the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
  Volunteer Diane McKillip of Woodridge loads a car with groceries at a new drive-up service at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. The nonprofit organization and other suburban food pantries are seeing a significant increase in users as a result of the economic fallout from the coronavirus. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Orders with the Northern Illinois Food Bank provide another 20% to 30% of the pantry's supply. Overall, the food bank distributes groceries to nearly 900 partner agencies.

"We've seen a dramatic decline in retail donations and food recovery since last week -- as much as a 75% reduction so far this week," spokeswoman Liz Gartman said via email Thursday.

The food bank expects retail donations to rebound a bit in the coming weeks, but it's working closely with manufacturers and distribution centers to secure items to help mitigate the decline, Gartman said.

"We're continuing to source food through our typical channels and looking at purchasing products, but we've also seen increased prices there due to demand," she said. "We're just trying to work through that and be creative to make sure we get the food we need."

On Wednesday, the food bank launched a packing effort in Geneva to fill "emergency" boxes of food and cleaning supplies for partners throughout its service area. It will focus on making the 28-pound boxes available in communities where pantries have temporarily closed, Gartman said.

Volunteers assemble orders for a new drive-up service at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge.
  Volunteers assemble orders for a new drive-up service at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Volunteers packed 1,000 boxes headed for pantries as early as today. Another 250 will go out as soon as they're packed, likely early next week, Gartman said. Lasting 10 to 14 days, the boxes contain soap, toilet paper, beans, rice, pasta, canned vegetables and fruit and other staples.

"In total, we'll be distributing 2,500 emergency boxes for this round, as we expect we will continue to pack and distribute these boxes in the weeks to come," Gartman said.

West Suburban Community Pantry, meanwhile, is reevaluating distribution hours "day to day," Coyle said. The nonprofit is trying to limit the number of volunteers to no more than 10 each shift due to coronavirus concerns.

"Our goal really is to stay open in some fashion or another through all of this," Coyle said. "So we're going to make whatever adjustments we need to make."

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