COVID challenges show need for Woodridge Food Pantry expansion, new models for access
The West Suburban Community Pantry, headquartered in Woodridge, is moving ahead with its campaign "Access 2020: Building Capacity, Breaking Down Barriers." Proceeds from the fundraiser will enable the pantry to double the number of people served by 2030.
The nonprofit is planning to increase its capacity to serve children, families and seniors in need with food assistance, and grow its service area through client-centered delivery innovations including online food ordering and localized pickup.
"Our goal is to allow client choice while maintaining a safe delivery system that we can implement as efficiently as possible," said Laura Coyle, executive director. "The past several months of pivoting the way we get food to people during the pandemic has shown us the benefits of this expanded model."
Prior to the pandemic, the pantry was serving clients on-site through a "grocery store'" model. Once COVID-19 shut down the pantry store and limited volunteer participation, they needed to change to pre-packed boxes and drive-up delivery.
Since March, the pantry has been supplying a wide range of nutritious food to up to 150 families per service while social distancing and keeping clients, staff and volunteers safe. The pantry also continues to serve DuPage PADS and Bridge Communities partners at a critical time. They also served an increased demand for food from 20 families to 65 at their in-school pantry at Irene King Elementary School in Romeoville. Now the pantry is ready to pilot an online-ordering system with select mobile locations.
"Good nutrition is critical to maintaining good health and daily function. That's pretty tough when you don't have access to fresh protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables. With recent job losses, home-schooling and difficulty accessing other support services, demand is greater than ever," Coyle said. "We cannot be the same old pantry. We must find more effective ways to deliver food wherever the need is. What we've learned in the last four months is that we can serve considerably more people safely with pre-boxed orders and drive-up.
"By allowing people to order ahead online, we can give families the choice of items they desire," Coyle said. "The system also eliminates the potential of items unwanted by clients going to waste."
The pantry was recently part of a nationwide initiative led by Feeding America which studied the practical and emotional barriers to food sufficiency.
Leading factors are shame, fear, pride, time, transportation, mobility, child care and youth or age.
As a result of the study, the pantry launched a pilot program in 2019, leveraging technology to provide online ordering and local pickup to a number of Bridge Communities' residential sites.
Now, a major component of "Access2020" will be to expand these services to the greater community.
"It's the goal of the pantry to reach all families who face hunger. Our biggest challenge is that 28,000 people live in poverty in the communities we serve. Our research indicates that only 1 in 5 of those people use the pantry," says Coyle. "With the 'Access 2020' plan, we aim to continue to expand our reach to serve those who may want to use a traditional food pantry, when that is available again, as well as those who might require a different approach like online ordering, local pickup, mobile pantries, or school-based services. We have to treat each person's situation with respect and compassion."
The campaign is currently working to raise $600,000 in order to implement changes to the existing 10,000 square feet of storefront, warehouse and office space at the Woodridge Pantry including:
• Expanding the efficiency and capacity of the warehouse space;
• New technology for on-site online order station and enhanced inventory system;
• Increasing the capacity to serve at the Woodridge pantry and eliminate current parking barriers with addition of on-site online order center and dedicated drive-up pickup area;
• Updating waiting room and private intake offices to enhance the dignity of the shopping experience once COVID-19 restrictions allow;
• Relocating administrative offices and conference/classroom space to existing annex;
• Creating a dedicated food donation receiving station;
• Investing in additional off-site distribution capacity with additional truck, cooler boxes.
In conjunction with the online order system, the pantry plans to have pickup sites in high-need areas as well as at the Woodridge pantry. Over time, the West Suburban Community Pantry will begin offering the service to the neighborhoods and towns that surround the five Bridge Communities neighborhoods, in order to streamline delivery and test how the program works with a larger service area.
"WSCP's vision is a community without hunger. To achieve that vision we have to pursue every opportunity to reach each family in our community that faces hunger," says West Suburban Community Pantry Board chairman Jeff Seitz. "The board and staff have diligently sought innovative solutions that can be implemented in a financially responsible and effect manner. We believe this initiative will be a crucial next step toward our mission."
The pantry began renovations to the Woodridge site in June and hopes to have the expansion completed later this year. To donate to the campaign, visit wscpantry.org/access2020/.