Helping Neighbors: Northern Illinois Food Bank Celebrates 40 Years of Giving

One of America’s largest food banks is supporting millions of families across our region who need a helping hand. Here’s how you can lend your support to a neighbor.

Service is part of the culture at Northern Illinois Food Bank, and even the office team is encouraged to get out and serve. Last month, the Annual Fund and Donor Relations Team volunteered at a Mobile Market distribution in Elgin. Left to Right: Rose Brucal, Tiffany King, Lori Thornton, Beth Kalinowski, Steve Christiansen, Angelica Lopez, Julia Jones.

Of all the myths that surround the issue of hunger, perhaps the biggest one is that it doesn’t exist. Not here, anyway. Surely not in our own backyard.

Most of us find it hard to fathom that our neighbors could be hungry.

Such was the case when Franciscan Sister Rosemarie Burian established Bethlehem Food Center in Carol Stream in 1983. Some folks told her the food center was a solution in search of a problem.

“It’s not what’s in your pocket, but what’s in your heart that expresses life.”

 – Sister Rosemarie Burian, Founder of Northern Illinois Food Bank

But she’d worked closely enough with local families as a schoolteacher and pastoral associate toknow the need for supplemental groceries was real. She also knew that thousands of pounds of edible food were being dumped into landfills by manufacturers and grocery retailers. Since our region is a food production mecca, she thought it must be possible to bridge the gap between waste and hunger.

Sister Rosemarie Burian

In its first month, the Bethlehem Food Center delivered 7,000 pounds of food to neighbors facing food insecurity. Volunteers came out to help and generous businesses did their part.

Bethlehem Food Center evolved into Northern Illinois Food Bank, now headquartered in Geneva. It’s among the 15 largest food banks in the nation. Thanks to a battalion of caring volunteers and donors, it provided 80 million meals to food-insecure people last fiscal year.

“Over the past 40 years a lot has changed, but our mission remains the same: to provide nutritious food to neighbors experiencing food insecurity, with dignity, equity and convenience,” says Julie Yurko, president and CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank.

Julie Yurko

The Food Bank operates distribution hubs in Geneva, Rockford, Lake Forest and Joliet. Food is delivered to them in bulk, sorted and then repackaged for delivery to pantries and soup kitchens.

“In the 13 counties that Northern Illinois Food Bank serves, there are 400,000 food-insecure neighbors, 100,000 of them children,” says Julia Jones, senior development officer and co-chair of the 40th anniversary committee. “That’s about one in every eight residents, one in every five children in northern Illinois. Anyone in need of a little help can access the Food Bank’s network of 900 pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs.”

Who Gets the Food?
There’s no “typical” client who comes to a food pantry, says Jones. People find themselves needing a little help for all sorts of reasons, often unexpectedly.

“Most people who access the charitable food network are employed at least part-time and are having trouble making ends meet,” she says. “We see senior citizens, active or retired military servicepeople, moms and dads trying to feed their families, individuals of all ages and backgrounds. So many people in northern Illinois are just a paycheck or a medical bill or two away from needing assistance for basic things. When the Food Bank and its network help people with food, it allows them to pay rent or other bills, and may get them back on their feet.”

The Food Bank requires no proof of income. People don’t have to be homeless, unemployed, disabled or SNAP-qualified (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) to receive food.

“Some food pantries in our network may have their own qualifications, such as living in the township or community where they operate,” says Jones. “Many have no restrictions at all. The Food Bank works with its network partners to eliminate barriers. For example, we encourage pantries to offer an evening distribution option because many people work and can’t get to a morning distribution.”

In many pantries, neighbors can come every week. In smaller ones, the rule may be once or twice a month.

“Food pantries are located throughout rural and suburban communities so that neighbors can access them easily,” says Jones. “The Food Bank’s leadership is trying to remove as many barriers as possible for people who need help. One way we’ve removed barriers is through the My Pantry Express program. It enables neighbors to place an order online, which they then pick up locally in a drive-thru distribution a few days later.”

My Pantry Express began in 2019 and now has nearly 20 pickup locations. In 2022 it received 55,000 orders.

Who Donates the Food?
Northern Illinois Food Bank is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization and a member of Feeding America, the largest charity working to end hunger in our nation.

Northern Illinois Food Bank receives about 63% of its donated food from hundreds of local and national food retailers and manufacturers like Jewel, Aldi, Schnucks, Walmart, General Mills and Del Monte. It uses cash donations to purchase about 26% of its inventory, especially fresh produce. The Food Bank also sources food from farmers, individuals, businesses and federal government commodities.

Every $1 donation to Northern Illinois Food Bank buys $8 worth of food, says Yurko. About 97% of its resources go directly to programs that feed people.

Leveraging the food donations offered by Northern Illinois Food Bank makes all the difference to local pantries striving to help neighbors. For example, Neighbors Pantry in Wonder Lake reports on its website:

“Because of our partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank, we’re able to participate in the Emergency Food Program where we’re able to buy large quantities of food at a greatly reduced price – making every dollar you give go much further than at the traditional grocery stores. In fact, we’re only spending 14 cents for every pound of food purchased.”

Help Wanted
During its 40 years of service, the Food Bank has seen good and bad economies, but the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge like no other.

“We’ve seen great financial support from our community, but we need continued support now more than ever,” says Jones. “Inflation and negative returns in the stock market, coupled with people tiring of pandemic talk, resulted in a decline in financial donations to the Food Bank at a time when our expenses are even higher to meet the need and rising costs.”

Additionally, emergency allotments for SNAP benefits during the pandemic have ended, meaning many neighbors are now receiving $90 to $250 less each month.

“So many people in northern Illinois are just a paycheck or a medical bill or two away from needing assistance for basic things.”

– Julia Jones, Senior Development Officer, Northern Illinois Food Bank

Donors are essential, but so are volunteers. The Food Bank couldn’t function without the nearly 1,000 faithful helpers who show up each week to evaluate, repack and distribute food.

“Many people volunteer at the Food Bank for the first time with their company, maybe for a teambuilding exercise,” says Jones. “Or they may come with their church, school or service club. When you’re processing or repacking food, it’s fun to work together with friends and know you’re helping your own neighbors in your community through your efforts. The Food Bank welcomes volunteers, whether it’s once in awhile, or once or twice a week.”

Looking to the Future
As the Food Bank celebrates its past, it’s also sizing up the future. Earlier this year, it launched a new Food Finder map to help people connect with nearby food resources. It’s mobile-friendly, has multiple language options, has filters for days of the week and shows which pantries are open when.

A new website design makes it easier to locate food programs, donate and volunteer. It also includes a 40th anniversary webpage featuring neighbor and volunteer stories, a historical timeline, a tribute video, images of Sister Rosemarie, and an interactive tool for users to share memories or ask questions about the Food Bank.

“These digital tools are a game-changer in the future of food accessibility and equity in Northern Illinois and beyond,” says Yurko. “Our hope is that we can reach more neighbors experiencing food insecurity and help them and their families get to thriving faster.”