Breaking down barriers. West Suburban Community Pantry using technology to communicate with migrant clients

An electrical problem has forced the temporary closing of Pantry Store at the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge. Cash donations are sought to replace food lost. (Courtesy of West Suburban Community Pantry)

West Suburban Community Pantry knows the social stigma attached to using food banks.

Add a language barrier to the mix, and accessing food and resources can seem even more daunting to non-English speakers.

But the Woodridge-based pantry’s use of a new technology is helping to break down the language barrier.

In June, the pantry began using the Instant Language Assistant translator tool to communicate with its increasingly diverse migrant population. The device allows clients to have real-time conversations in their native language with the pantry’s volunteers and staff.

“We had read about it and thought, ‘Wow, let’s give it a go,’” said Pantry CEO Suzanne Armato. “We purchased one and did a pilot to see how it would change our ability to help our customers and we found in the first day the incredible impact it made. People are uncomfortable coming to a food pantry, especially if they can’t easily communicate. But this takes the anxiety down for our customers. They’re able to tell us exactly what they need.”

The ILA device features two screens. The text and screen colors can be changed to aid customers with low vision. Customers can speak or text using the tablet, or enter a virtual chat room and use their own phone without setting up an account. The ILA supports 120 languages and offers a variety of dialects, and it can be loaded with common phrases to ease in specific uses.

West Suburban Community Pantry volunteers and staff use the tablet to welcome customers, introduce them to the supportive services and assist with check-in and registration.

“Last year alone, we had over 17 languages spoken by our customers so that shows you the depth of diversity of the people coming here, and this allows us to communicate with all of them,” Armato said.

The pantry had more than 110,000 customer visits at the pantry last year.

“Each customer on average represents four total people in a household so we served nearly 450,000 customers last year,” Armato said. “The previous year it was 65,000, so from one year to the next that was a huge increase.”

Recently, the pantry, which serves individuals in DuPage and Will counties seeking food and resources, has seen a surge in Ukrainian refugee customers.

Paul Matsushima, director of pantry operations, said he’s “seen firsthand the power” of the ILA device in connecting with individuals.

“Recently, I helped several newly immigrated individuals sign up to get groceries using the ILA. It allowed us to have a conversation and put us on equal footing. It really breaks down the language barrier and reduces the stress of a new situation for all. We could use a lot more to help assist our community,” he said. “One really isn’t enough.”

To that end, pantry officials hope to garner enough financial support to purchase several more to increase the efficiency of pantry operations and serve with dignity.

“We would really love to have six to eight ILAs,” Armato said. “We have multiple greeters and intake people, and we would love to have an ILA for each of them.”

Additionally, West Suburban Community Pantry is looking to add more volunteers to its roster.

“We’re experiencing such a huge increase in demand we have a very small staff,” Armato said. “We have 250 to 300 customers a day and that requires a lot of volunteers and it’s harder and harder to get them. We’re trying to rise to our absolute best to provide support and care that will improve the quality of life for people who come here.”

West Suburban Community Pantry is located at 6809 Hobson Valley Drive, Suite 118, Woodridge. For more information about volunteering or donating, visit