A volunteer loads a car at Hillside Pantry, 2727 Crawford Ave. Photo by Karen Young

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As businesses close, workers furloughed or laid-off, and incomes fall, it is not surprising that food pantries across the country are seeing significant increases in visits.

“People are finding themselves in need unlike anything they have probably ever experienced before,” said Faith Albano, Pantry Operations Manager of the Hillside Food Pantry.   

Hillside, 2727 Crawford Ave. (http://www.hillsidepantry.org/), has seen sharp increases in visits and new families or patrons over the past few months. Patron visits are on track to increase 50% to 2,100 visits in May, up from 1,400 visits in March.  Hillside signed up 150 new patrons in April.

Twice each week – from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday – Hillside distributes bags of food to people in need. Unlike many food pantries, Hillside has no residency requirements, explained Ms. Albano. Patrons do not necessarily live in Evanston or the surrounding towns; some come from as far away as Deerfield and Vernon Hills. Patrons may visit the pantry once each week.

Hillside operates as a “drive-up” food pantry. Patrons are directed to an area to register or sign-in, receive a ticket and drive to the distribution area. Volunteers load the grocery bags into the patron’s vehicle. The grocery bags are filled with meat, produce, bread and other items – enough food for one to three meals, depending on household size.

Hillside relies on volunteers to run the pantry.   On May 27, 10 volunteers helped direct traffic, register and sign-in patrons, sort food, pack grocery bags and deliver bags of food to patron’s cars. 

Hillside opened its pantry doors 11 years ago, in May 2009, another time of widespread need. Then the national unemployment rate was 9.4% and 14.5 million people were unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Last month, the unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% from 4.4% and the number of unemployed rose by 15.7 million to 23.1 million, the largest monthly increase since the BLS initiated this data series.

 Hillside Food Pantry is an agency of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a partner in a network of more than 700 food and school pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Chicago and Cook County. 

The depository has kept Hillside well supplied, delivering 13,000 to 16,000 pounds of food per week, said Ms. Albano.  Hillside also receives food donations from Evanston Farmers’ Market vendors, local bakeries, faith groups and individuals.  Hewn Bakery has been making 200 to 400 loaves of fresh bread available weekly to Hillside through its “Neighbor Loaf” program. 

 Ms. Albano said it has been interesting to see the community response to growing lines at the pantry.  “It is one thing to see on TV, to see food pantry lines in other parts of the country. But it is another thing when you see in your own backyard, a line of cars going all the way down Crawford and blocking the intersection, a line that does not stop for two hours,” she said, adding, “It has been a real-eye opener for people who maybe have not had to think about people in need.”

Hillside Food Pantry has been able to stay open during the stay-at-home period, making some procedural changes to accommodate the greater number of patrons while practicing social distancing.  For example, patrons must now stay in their car through the entire process. The Evanston Traffic Control Department helps to facilitate traffic flow on especially busy days.

The pantry has a relatively modest budget, spending only $32,000 per year on food, sanitary items, bags, and utilities.  The cost to serve per visit is about $1.90, assuming 1,400 monthly visits during normal times.

Hillside Food Pantry is funded primarily from individual donations. Hillside also receives some foundation support, but obtaining unrestricted funds for on-going operations is difficult. Ms. Albano said many foundations are reluctant to grant funds for existing operations, preferring capacity-building grants instead.

Ms. Albano said she is heartened by the outpouring of support Hillside has received during this time period.  “The main thing is that people are getting served, and we are not turning anyone away,” she said. “We have the volunteer help that we need, the food resources that we need, and incredible support from the community – it is so amazing to see everyone coming together.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository serves a network of more than 700 partners in Chicago and Cook County.  Partners include food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and school pantry programs. 

Most food (90%), including all produce, is provided free of charge to partners.  Partners are able to purchase at cost, certain items to supplement free items.  Food from USDA programs including the Emergency Family Assistance Program and donated food are the largest sources for the depository.