'Hunger around every corner': Glen Ellyn Food Pantry settles into new home, sees high demand
The front door is painted a warm red.
Inside the new and larger home of the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, the shelves are stocked with fruits and vegetables: avocados, celery stalks, bags of onions and kumquat. Mary, a mom of two who asked that her last name not be used, picked ears of corn.
"It was absolutely breathtaking," she said of the first time she visited the Park Boulevard building. "It's new. It's vibrant."
Suburban food pantries are often located in church basements, industrial warehouses or an out-of-the-way facility. The Glen Ellyn pantry now operates out of a newly renovated Craftsman-style house, just north of the Roosevelt Road corridor and easily accessible by Pace bus.
"What we love about this is it's a house," said Laura Glaza, the pantry's executive director. "It's a very welcoming environment for folks, and that's what we want people to feel."
Pantries in DuPage County continue to see high demand for food. Households have been hit hard by inflation. Federal assistance programs that were readily available during the pandemic have scaled back or ended altogether. The Glen Ellyn pantry has served more than 300 new families since the start of the year.
"Part of it is a lot of the benefits that were in place during COVID, the stimulus checks, the SNAP benefits, and the increased SNAP benefits, all those have gone away ... but unfortunately, prices at the grocery store and other places are higher, so it's made it really difficult for people," Glaza said.
The pantry had operated out of Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Glen Ellyn for more than 40 years, ever since it was founded by a youth group in 1979. After running out of room in its original location, the nonprofit launched a fundraising campaign to transform the nearly century-old parsonage next to Faith Lutheran Church into the pantry's new headquarters. The momentum was building just when the pandemic hit.
"It's been a long process, and of course, COVID in the middle of it didn't make things any easier," Glaza said.
But pantry leaders and their supporters persisted. Local musicians, artists, dancers and a magician pulled out the stops while volunteers worked the phone lines during a livestreaming telethon in 2020, one of the socially-distant fundraising events held for the capital campaign.
The pantry ended up exceeding its goal, raising more than $900,000 to fund the project. With its own larger, dedicated building, the pantry can control operating hours and expand its reach.
The pantry distributed 200,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2022. It's on pace to provide 300,000 pounds this year.
"We talk about DuPage County as one of the wealthiest in the country ... but there is still hunger around every corner," Glaza said.
The pantry predominantly helps the working poor, families that struggle to pay higher living costs, senior citizens on a fixed income who would otherwise have to skip food to pay for medicine or utilities and people with temporary or permanent disabilities.
"We now serve everybody who lives works or goes to school in DuPage County," Glaza said.
Sometimes, it's the little things that make all the difference. Home gardeners package and label bags of herbs for the pantry's clients. Donna Blake, who runs the pantry's food recovery program, puts out recipes for families.
"I love the new space because I have more room to display all my vegetables," she said on a recent weekday.
It's been a lifeline for Mary, who works in the cleaning industry. Without the pantry, she said she "wouldn't make ends meet."
"The staff is just amazingly warm," Mary said. "They're generous, loving and kind, which goes a long way in today's society."
Faith Lutheran Church is renting the property to the pantry for $55 per year, a nod to its new address, 55 N. Park Blvd. The neighborhood pantry now has 6,000 square feet of space, including a two-story warehouse. It gets most of its produce from the Northern Illinois Food Bank and grocery store donations. The red front door opens to a retail-like experience.
"We have so much room to move around, and it's so bright and fresh," Glaza said. "The clients are happy because it looks even more like a grocery store."