Joliet food pantry director worried about running out of food

Mary Cottrell needs food. Period.

Not for herself, but for the vulnerable population the St. John the Baptist food pantry serves every Monday.

These are not people who supplement their groceries with the food pantry. They’re people who depend on the food pantry to eat.

“We’re just struggling to keep up,” Cottrell said.

And she’s worried about what she’ll do if the pantry runs out of food.

Cottrell typically sees 200 to 230 families each Monday. That number has nearly doubled over the past couple of weeks.

“I got there at 8 o’clock on Monday and I had 14 people waiting outside,” Cottrell said. “Quite a few were waiting outside from 6 a.m. One gentleman with a family of four said he had only had half a gallon of milk and half a bag of rice left.”

Cottrell said this person does receive food stamps, but he couldn’t use them.

“He said he couldn’t afford any of the food that was left in the stores,” Cottrell said. “A lot of senior people are coming, and they only get $12 in food stamps. That’s why we’re trying to help out as much as possible.”

Many of these people who come out to St. John’s food pantry are people who can’t afford transportation, Cottrell said.

Because curbside pickup is not an option, volunteers place the food on tables and make sure people are following social distancing, she said.

And then these people, with the help of their loved ones (including children) carry the food home, often uphill, Cottrell said.

With kids not attending school and getting subsidized meals, the families have a greater need for food, Cottrell said.

“We’re starting to get depleted,” Cottrell said, “Right now, I don’t have any noodles. I’m going through a lot of food really fast.”

Cottrell said local grocery stores aren’t donating food because their stocks also are low. She said the Northern Illinois Food Bank has been low on certain items, too.

“I bought pizzas last week. This week, no pizzas,” Cottrell said. “There’s usually 10 to 13 pages of different shipping items. Now it’s down to 8 to 9 pages. That’s big cutoff.”

In an email, Elizabeth Gartman, communications manager at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said the amount of pages vary with the food descriptions. Some are more detailed than others, she said.

That said, the food bank did recently see a spike in orders from food pantries over the past few weeks, similar to the spike grocery stories saw in their customers stocking up on essentials, but the food bank is working hard to meet that increased need, Gartman said.

“We’ve done some replenishment already, with more scheduled over the next week as well,” she said.

Although the food bank had a “dramatic decline” in retails donations and food recovery last week, the food bank has also received truckloads of items from various food manufacturers and retailers, Gartman said.

These items include cheese, peanut butter, and fresh produce and dairy, along with shampoo, conditioner and hand soap – with more than 200 more pallets of donated product to be delivered Thursday, Gartman said.

In fact, the Northern Illinois Food Bank expects retail donations and food recovery rates to rebound in the next few weeks, Gartman said.

The food bank is still also seeking donations and has been purchasing additional food, too, she said.

Normally, food pantries have a nine-day ordering window, Gartman said. This includes six days to order and three days for product to be shipped.

But if local food pantries are running short and need some items immediately, the Northern Illinois Food Bank has other options to help them out, too.

“In addition to ordering from our shopping list, our agencies can also come into or schedule a pickup at any of our four centers, and shop products not available on the shopping list,” Gartman said.

“These items may be smaller quantities of items, like one pallet or less [like just a few cases] or things we need to get out quickly – like fresh dairy, which often has shorter “Best By” dates.”

How can people help?

Donate food, especially pasta and kid-friendly food. Monetary donations are not useful right now, she said, because many of the local stores are out of items the pantry needs, Cottrell said.

And if you’re healthy, willing and not a member of a vulnerable population, consider volunteering.

Cottrell said she normally has 18 to 20 volunteers each Monday. Now she’s down to four, maybe six.

“I have older people that volunteer who can’t come out,” Cottrell said. “They’re heartbroken, crying on the phone because they can’t come in.”

Heartbroken. That’s how Cottrell feels right now.

A social worker at two hospitals, Cottrell grew up at St. John the Baptist parish. She attended St. John school through the third grade, which is when the school closed.

She began volunteering at St. John’s food pantry when she was 11 because she needed volunteer hours, and never stopped volunteering.

Four years ago, Cottrell became the food pantry’s director. She’s heard other pantries might have cut their hours, but Cottrell said she won’t cut the hours. She wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if she did, she said.

“We’re just trying to do the best we can with it,” she said. “I’m just trying to get everyone an even amount of food. But at the end of the day, I’ve have nothing left.”

To volunteer with or donate food to St. John’s food pantry or for more information, call 815-727-4788.

For more information about the Northern Illinois Food Bank, visit