How massive mobile programs have helped feed the hungry during the pandemic

  • Volunteers load items into cars at a food distribution event at the College of Lake County in Grayslake last month.

    Volunteers load items into cars at a food distribution event at the College of Lake County in Grayslake last month. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Hundreds of families received food last month during the Northern Illinois Food Bank's pop-up food pantry at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

    Hundreds of families received food last month during the Northern Illinois Food Bank's pop-up food pantry at the College of Lake County in Grayslake. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteers load food into cars during a Northern Illinois Food Bank mobile pantry distribution event last month at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

    Volunteers load food into cars during a Northern Illinois Food Bank mobile pantry distribution event last month at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Pizza, fresh pineapples, beans, rice, macaroni and cheese, and coconut milk were among items distributed last month at a Northern Illinois Food Bank mobile pantry event at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

    Pizza, fresh pineapples, beans, rice, macaroni and cheese, and coconut milk were among items distributed last month at a Northern Illinois Food Bank mobile pantry event at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Peter Kerwin, right, 6, helps his little brother, Conner Kerwin, 3, load food into cars during a Northern Illinois Food Bank distribution event at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville last month.

    Peter Kerwin, right, 6, helps his little brother, Conner Kerwin, 3, load food into cars during a Northern Illinois Food Bank distribution event at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville last month. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/16/2021 12:10 AM
This story has been updated to correct information regarding the number of meals served through the mobile food pantry.

It's a sunny, late October afternoon and the Northern Illinois Food Bank's massive pop-up market at the College of Lake County in Grayslake is running like a well-oiled machine.

It should. For more than a decade, the organization has distributed food through mobile food pantries in the parking lots of schools, community centers and houses of worship in counties, including Lake, DuPage, McHenry, Kane and Will.

 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, each mobile food pantry distribution typically fed between 75 and 150 families. That translated to about 2 million meals yearly.

Last year, those numbers spiked in the 13 northern Illinois counties the food bank serves: 18 million meals were delivered through smaller mobile pantries and new large-scale, pop-up markets -- like the one at CLC -- that the food bank organized in response to the rising need.

-

Similar large distributions have taken place at Elgin Community College, Six Flags Great America, Joliet Junior College and the Salvation Army in Rockford.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It takes your breath away when you see folks in need," said Northern Illinois Food Bank President and CEO Julie Yurko. "It hurts your heart."

In two hours at last month's CLC event, hundreds of vehicles lined up in a parking lot. Five at a time pulled into designated spaces alongside pallets loaded with pasta and chicken patties, rice and soup, peanut butter, cereal and produce.

Five teams of volunteers surrounded the vehicles, depositing boxes of food into trunks and back seats. Minutes later, the vehicles drove off and five more took their place.

Picture an Indianapolis 500 pit crew swarming a race car, performing with lightning speed their assigned duties, then scurrying away.

Food bank volunteers are practiced and dedicated. They have to be. According to the food bank's website SolveHungerToday.org, 344,273 residents in their suburban coverage area -- or one in 12 -- face hunger.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

John Sorg knows how those suburbanites feel. As a child, there were many days when Sorg had no dinner. Now, the Waukegan retiree volunteers to pick up food bank donations for five families living in Zion and Waukegan.

"I can't stand to see anybody hungry," he said, "not in this country."

One "delivery" or donation can sustain a family of four or five for about a week, Sorg says. He said his faith compels him to help.

"It's the Christian thing to do," he said.

Pandemic response

Waukegan retiree John Sorg picks up food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which he distributes to several families in Zion and Waukegan.
Waukegan retiree John Sorg picks up food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which he distributes to several families in Zion and Waukegan. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

The food bank's first large-scale, pop-up market took place in April of 2020 near its Geneva distribution center. During the pandemic, food bank volunteers organized about 18 smaller mobile markets weekly and about 20 large-scale distribution events each month across all counties.

At the height of the pandemic, large monthly events at places such as CLC served 1,500 to 2,000 families on average. That number subsequently dropped to between 300 and 600 families per event in recent months, but volunteers say they're seeing a fall uptick.

Yurko predicts food pantry clients will increase 20% this year from prepandemic levels. She attributes it to rising food prices, discontinued government benefits and the upcoming holidays -- all of which make it harder to stretch a dollar.

To that end, Yurko anticipates large-scale distribution events will continue even after the pandemic eases.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank works with farmers, grocers, manufacturers, foundations and more to secure food for distribution.

According to a United Way of Lake County quarterly report released in September, callers to Lake County's 211 contact center reported food as their fourth greatest need behind housing and shelter, utilities and mental health/addiction assistance. Lake County 211 is a free helpline that connects people in need to health and human service providers.

"Hunger goes hand-in-hand with every one of those needs," said Kelly Brown, of Interface Children & Family Services, which runs the contact center that launched in September of 2019. "We're always bringing up the access to food."

What typically drives people to request assistance from a food pantry is an unexpected life event. It could be a health challenge, a job loss or a divorce. That's where food banks come in. Donated food means more money for rent, utilities, health care and other expenses.

Brown said call center workers report suburbanites who never needed assistance are now seeking help.

"They've always been able to figure out resolutions for themselves," she said. But as the pandemic continues, "their safety net plans and accounts have been depleted."

Not everyone knows how food pantries or hot meal services work. Some people need help registering for government assistance programs or they don't believe they qualify, insisting "there are people who need it more than me," she said.

"Sometimes half of the conversation is convincing people the services are right for them, that they're not taking a benefit from someone else who needs it more," Brown said.

Challenges remain

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northern Illinois Food Bank served 1,500 to 2,000 families at pop-up food pantries like this one held at the College of Lake County in Grayslake last month. Volunteers served about 420 families at the CLC event.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northern Illinois Food Bank served 1,500 to 2,000 families at pop-up food pantries like this one held at the College of Lake County in Grayslake last month. Volunteers served about 420 families at the CLC event. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Making people aware of services remains an ongoing challenge, said Yurko.

But there are other obstacles -- including access. People may be aware food is available but lack transportation to collect it. That's where volunteers like Sorg step in.

"I can't fathom in this county why people are starving," he said. "It shouldn't be that way."

Access issues inspired providers to devise other ways to get food to people who need it. The Northern Illinois Food Bank introduced the online food pantry MyPantryExpress.org in February of 2019.

That option allows people to select groceries online for pickup at a location and time of their choice, Yurko said, adding that online orders increased from 30 during the first week of the website's launch to now more than 1,000 weekly.

The food bank also partners with food delivery service DoorDash.com to deliver items ordered online to Lake County residents. A pilot program was launched there in May. Four more Door Dash programs debuted earlier this month.

Together, the five food delivery programs cover six of the 13 counties the food bank serves, including DuPage, Lake, Kane and Will.

But perhaps the most challenging obstacle to seeking assistance is shame. Many people who are food-insecure feel embarrassed about the situation, and that prevents them from reaching out for help, according to providers.

Clorissa Bolden, 31, urges people struggling with food insecurity to overcome those reservations.

"Don't ever be embarrassed because you're in need. Someone else like you is going through the same thing," said the CLC student and mother of two from Beach Park as she waited in line during last month's Lake County distribution event.

"You never know what families are going through," she said. "You can have a job. You can have two jobs and always fall short."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.