Evanston food pantries serve community despite pandemic

Llyoandra Cooper stocking shelves in The Giving Storeroom
The Giving Storeroom Coordinator Llyoandra Cooper sorts through bags of donated food, stocking the pantry's shelves. (Bennett Baker/MEDILL)

By Bennett Baker
Medill Reports

With brown paper bags full of donations covering every tabletop of The Giving Storeroom, shelves overflowing with cans and boxed food and two more large donations still on their way, coordinator Llyoandra Cooper knew it was time to spread the word.

“I came in here as the bags were coming from our donations, and I looked at my friend and I said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna shoot a video,’ ” Cooper said.

In the short video posted to Facebook and Instagram on Sunday evening, Cooper urged viewers to spread the word that The Giving Storeroom has an abundance of food to give to the community during its weekly hours on Saturday. The post garnered approximately 1,500 views on the first day.

The Giving Storeroom, a food pantry and clothing closet located in the basement of the Family Focus Evanston at 2010 Dewey Ave., is one of many organizations that serve Evanston community members in need.

“On Saturday, prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, and with the media that we’ve done, we are expecting to serve the masses,” Cooper said. “With COVID, we know that a lot of people are in need. So we are here to be a resource.”

On average, The Giving Storeroom packs 20 bags of food in a week for clients. With the pantry’s social media outreach leading up to this Saturday’s distribution, Cooper expects to reach 100 bags of distributed food and is prepared to operate for as many hours as it takes to feed the community.

With the widespread economic hardship brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, food pantries all around the Chicago area have seen an increase in demand from the community.

“In our most recent data, our network is serving an average of 50% more people when compared to January,” said Greg Trotter, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. At one point in June, demand reached 150% of January levels.

Located in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago, the GCFD supplies more than 700 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County. The depository’s network is supplied by donations from food manufacturers, grocery stores, wholesalers and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Stocked shelves in The Giving Storeroom
The Giving Storeroom, located at Family Focus Evanston, supplies community members with food and clothing. The pantry typically distributes about 20 bags of food each week. (Bennett Baker/MEDILL)

The Hillside Food Pantry is one of many organizations that receive weekly deliveries from the GCFD. These shipments help keep the pantry stocked with food for the nearly 250 families that show up each time its doors open.

“This year, all of a sudden, especially during the pandemic, we started to see people we hadn’t seen in about four years, because things were so unsettled for so many months,” said Faith Albano, operations manager at the Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston.

Typically, members of the network submit online orders to the GCFD that are distributed by a fleet of trucks. Most of the food is free, though pantries can purchase additional items that are popular in their community. During November and December, many pantries pay extra for special holiday food, including turkey, potatoes, and canned green beans and corn.

“But because of the pandemic, we’ve said that all food is free through the year, basically kind of indefinitely as we’re in the middle of this ongoing crisis,” Trotter said. “Even the holiday food this year is free.”

For pantries in Evanston, a free food supply is just one of the changes COVID-19 has ushered in.

Prior to the pandemic, many pantries operated under the client-choice model, where visitors could walk around and shop for the individual items they needed. With social distancing mandates, pantries have had to shift to other methods of distribution.

“Instead of shopping for it because it’s close quarters in the pantry, we’ve had to just bag items up to give to families,” said Christina Champlin, a captain with the Salvation Army in Evanston.

While pre-packed bags prevent families from picking everything they might want, the new system allows pantries to continue serving their communities.

On an average Friday of food pantry operation, one to two-dozen families visit the Evanston Salvation Army. Between the beginning of the pandemic lockdown in mid-March and July 31, the pantry served 952 individuals, Champlin said.

The Evanston Salvation Army participated in the GCFD’s holiday food program, providing food to 86 families for their Thanksgiving distribution last Saturday. While this number is similar to last year’s Thanksgiving figure, Champlin expects increased demand next month.

“[For] Christmas we already have at least 100 families signed up, but our sign up isn’t done until December 4, so there is still time for people to sign up,” Champlin said.

The Evanston Vineyard Food Pantry, another GCFD partner, has also maintained weekly service to the community throughout the pandemic by switching to a pre-packed bag system.

Each Wednesday, Evanston Vineyard’s team of nine leaders and around 30 volunteers provides food to nearly 300 families, food pantry manager Lisa Haskin said. For their three weeks of operation in November, the pantry offered turkey to its clients, which it received from the GCFD as part of the free holiday food order this year.

The Hillside Food Pantry was well equipped for socially-distanced food distribution, having utilized a drive-through pantry method since it was started over 11 years ago. Despite making a few adjustments, the pantry has continued to function throughout the pandemic, which is especially important for its clients.

“Figure a bag of food is worth about 50 bucks, that’s $200 a month that they’re saving in food that can go someplace else,” Albano said.

Cooper and Frye
Cooper (left) and co-coordinator Jared Frye (right) discuss the pantry’s plan for its upcoming distribution on Saturday. Cooper estimates that The Giving Storeroom will pack 100 bags to give to members of the community. (Bennett Baker/MEDILL)

Despite increased public consciousness of food insecurity around the holidays, pantry workers want to raise awareness year-round. In 2019, 35.2 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

For The Giving Storeroom Co-Coordinator Jared Frye, getting community members involved on a weekly basis is a top priority.

“We don’t want it to become a glamorized thing, where people are only volunteering and giving around the holidays,” Frye said. “Each week we try to do something fun and be engaging and inviting so that people know we really care about this community.”

The Giving Storeroom is always looking for volunteers and help. On Tuesday evening, The Giving Storeroom still had dozens of bags of donated food on tables and under shelves to sort through before their Saturday distribution, with more unsorted bags piled in another room.

“I’m going to do as best I can to make sure everything’s as organized as possible,” Frye said, gesturing to the rows of donation bags and chock-full shelves. “Knowing what this will look like afterwards is going to be exciting.”

Since Cooper posted the Sunday Facebook video, she has received an influx of people volunteering to help as well as community members signing up to receive food. She has asked her team to come in early and be prepared to stay until the last client is served.

“We’re going to be prepared for those who have already RSVP’d who we know are coming, we’re going to be prepared for people who just walk up because they see a line of cars, and we’re going to be prepared to serve our community,” Cooper said.

For more information on how to get involved or receive food, visit www.chicagosfoodbank.org.

Bennett Baker is a social justice and investigative reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @BennettBaker7.