Everything Evanston: Food Pantries in a Pandemic

Maia Spoto and Ilana Arougheti

How are Evanston’s food pantries responding to a surge in food insecurity due to COVID-19? Hillside Food Pantry’s operations manager explains how the pantry adapted to meet the challenge, and a longtime volunteer walks us through a day at the pantry.

MAIA SPOTO: From the Daily Northwestern, this is Everything Evanston. I’m Maia Spoto.
ILANA AROUGHETI: And I’m Ilana Arougheti. The Hillside Food Pantry has served its patrons on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in its Northwest Evanston location for over a decade, but on April 15th, the pantry was especially busy. They served meals and ingredients to over 198 families, which adds up to 615 individuals. Twenty-eight new families registered for the pantry.
FAITH ALBANO: This past Wednesday, it went very smoothly. The Wednesday before was a little rough. The last three or four weeks we had, on Wednesdays, maybe 139, 140 families.
ILANA AROUGHETI: This is Faith Albano, Hillside’s operations manager.
FAITH ALBANO: You just don’t know what to expect each time you’re open right now. You don’t know how many people are going to be in need of food. Things have changed so radically over the last three weeks that what you would consider normal in terms of your processes or procedures kind of went out the window.
ILANA AROUGHETI: Food pantries are now implementing COVID-19 safety guidelines, including social distancing. Still, the pandemic has made daily operations difficult. A large number of Chicagoland pantries have temporarily closed their doors, leaving Hillside to bear the burden of food insecurity not only in Evanston, but also nearby areas. Since March, Albano and her team have put special operational routines in place, recognizing that Hillside is more essential than ever for patrons old and new.
FAITH ALBANO: We got a lot of people from Rogers Park last week. I got a lot of Facebook messages — “Hey, I’m from Rogers Park, can I come and get food?” We are a food pantry that has no geographic or financial boundaries. Anybody who needs food can come and get some food. So that makes us a little bit different than other pantries that may have specific requirements. Basically, the only thing we need to register someone is their name, their address, their birth date, and then the names and birthdates of people in their family. That’s it. Normally, during our registration, our patrons would go into our church building. We have computers set up, and they give their ID and register. We give them a little paper ticket, and then they drive over to the pantry, which is on the other side of our parking lot. So we have a very smooth process where people can get in and out with their food in less than 10 minutes.
With the COVID and the fact that contact needed to be kept to a minimum, initially nobody knew what to expect or what to do. So we tried to set up a few barriers, like an extra table, and didn’t want to touch anything. Gradually we realized, OK, everybody has to wear masks, everybody has to wear gloves, and we decided to switch things around in terms of where we needed to put our computers and how we needed to check people in.
ILANA AROUGHETI: Patrons typically come in once a week to pick up a mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and ingredients for a meal or two. Last week the shelter served chili, distributing cans of tomatoes and beans. Other local pantries serve larger quantities of food once or twice a month.
FAITH ALBANO: So they will get a bag of food that right now is enough to last them at least a couple of meals. And that’s why we allow patrons to come once a week as opposed to once or twice a month — we can give them enough to offset a couple of meals.
We get food donations from all different groups. It can be a school group, it can be a community food drive, preschools. We get donations from all across the board. We get them from individuals. We accept non-perishable donations — we don’t accept perishable donations. We also work with the Evanston Farmers’ Market in the spring and summer. For the whole time that they’re open, we pick up fresh produce from the farmers every Saturday.
ILANA AROUGHETI: While Hillside’s layout might have been simple enough to modify to pandemic standards, Albano believes her dedicated volunteers deserve most of the credit for the pantry’s ability to stay open.
FAITH ALBANO: I think it’s possible that the reason people could not stay open was because they didn’t have enough volunteers. We’re fortunate we do have a significant volunteer support system. We typically have on our roster about 60 volunteers. I still probably have a good 40. Many of them have been volunteering with us for five, six, seven years — long time. And they’re very dedicated to the pantry.
The ones that are staying home are older. And so they have emailed us way in the beginning, when things started to get a little more heated up. They would say, “Well, my kids are giving me a hard time. They don’t want me to volunteer right now.” I said, “No, it’s understandable. Be safe. That’s the most important thing.” It’s really hard on them. They love it. And it’s like a little community of people and when they can’t be there, they miss it.
MAIA SPOTO: One of these loyal volunteers is Myra Gorman, who started volunteering with Hillside Food Pantry about a decade ago.

MYRA GORMAN: I had an employee that was down on his luck, and he needed to get some food. So I picked him up and brought him over to Hillside. And then I saw what they were doing, and at one point I asked one of the volunteers if they needed more volunteers, and they said yes. And from that point on, I was hooked. I work on Wednesdays. I do distribution on Wednesdays from 4 to 6, and I’ve been doing it now for over 10 years. When I miss a Wednesday, I feel like something is not right in my world.

MAIA SPOTO: Myra goes in on Wednesday mornings to help manage the deliveries. Then, she comes back at 3:30 in the afternoon to start packing bags for distribution at 4.

She said she’s been working at the pantry more often than usual, because they’re receiving extra large deliveries from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a food bank that serves the Chicago area. Usually, Hillside Food Pantry gets a couple thousand pounds of food per delivery. But a couple of weeks ago, the pantry got 16,000 pounds of food.

MYRA GORMAN: We have a back room that has three large industrial freezers, and then shelves all the way around the walls and huge tables in the middle. So the day that we got 16,000 pounds of food, all those freezers were jam-packed. There was food on the big tables. There was food on all the shelves.

MAIA SPOTO: The pantry operates like an assembly line. The packing room has a conveyor belt, and volunteers, standing at an appropriate social distance, roll bags of food down the belts.

MYRA GORMAN: We’re constantly stepping out of each other’s way, and we’re all masked. We all have gloves on. We run like an efficient army in that pantry.

MAIA SPOTO: Myra said she’s worked with the same group of volunteers for many years. They started as strangers, but they’ve built a community. While they work, they talk about how much food they received in the morning, and how heavy they think their bags are going to be. They also talk about their families and ask each other about their lives.

For Myra, volunteering at the pantry is about more than the food: there’s a personal touch that goes into all the work she does. When she hands out ingredients like vegetables and beans and split peas, she also passes out recipes, so patrons can make home-cooked meals. And when she sees the woman next to her packing pancake mix, she makes an effort to add syrup, for a finishing touch.

MYRA GORMAN: We’re not just putting in food no matter what. We’re really trying to pack the bags efficiently so that we can put as much in them as we can, so that they can get as much food out.

If I can be there for somebody, no matter how tired I am at the end of the day on Wednesday, I’m there. And I think each one of us has had a patron say to us, “God bless you. Thank you so much for being here for us.” And that’s why we all do it. Because we know that there are people that need it.
ILANA AROUGHETI: If you’re looking for ways to support your local food pantry, consider a monetary donation to pantries like Hillside.
FAITH ALBANO: When something like this hit, a lot of pantries found themselves to be a little bit more financially strained than normal because of all the additional things that they might need to do in terms of purchasing items such as gloves and masks and whatnot. And that will help us with ongoing financial needs in the months that follow because this is going to go on. I would say there will still be probably some issues through May.
MAIA SPOTO: This episode was reported and produced by me, Maia Spoto, and Ilana Arougheti. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]
Twitter: @maia_spoto

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