‘Flying off the shelves’: Food pantries trying to feed more with fewer resources

Suburban food pantries like Shepherd's Heart Food Pantry in Geneva say they're seeing a rise in need as the holiday season arrives.

In the week leading up to the country’s most food-oriented holiday, leaders at suburban food pantries say they are working to feed more people amid rising grocery prices and fewer donations.

“The food is just flying off the shelves,” said Erin Wise, director of Shepherd’s Heart at Chapel Street Church in Geneva.

The food pantry last year served about 1,000 people per month, according to Wise. That number is now roughly 1,300 people a month.

“Usually, there’s an ebb and flow,” Wise said. “But it’s been continual growth. Next month, call me, and I may say we’re at 1,500 or 1,600.”

Mike Havala, CEO and president of Loaves and Fishes, which has locations in Naperville and Aurora, said the number of people the organization is feeding has more than doubled from the 3,000 a week they were serving in January.

“We are feeding a lot more people with less food, if you will, because of the higher prices and less availability,” Havala said.

Volunteer Greyson Halley, 10, stocks a refrigerator at the Shepherd's Heart Food Pantry in Geneva. More people are relying on food pantries in the suburbs as grocery store prices increase.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank, among the state’s largest, is serving about 440,000 people per month, up from 310,000 per month last year, said Maeven Sipes, the food bank’s chief philanthropy officer.

The organization has distribution centers in Joliet and Rockford and a new large center in Lake County. It provides meals through a network of food pantries over a 13-county area.

Sipes said the food bank plans to provide about 60,000 holiday meal boxes to people in November and December, up from the previous record 55,000 boxes last year.

“We ordered a lot of food for the boxes six-plus months ago as we saw prices start to climb,” Sipes said.

Havala said the cost of groceries is up more than 12% compared to last year, and some staples are even higher, including poultry (up 15%), flour (25%) and eggs (43%).

The Shepherd's Heart Food Pantry in Geneva is set up much like a grocery store. Food pantries are seeing an uptick in demand as food prices have risen in recent months.

Typically food pantries will receive nonperishable food donations from the public and perishable food donations from local grocery stores, usually from the unsold supply. Havala said the amount they’ve received from grocery stores has gone down meaningfully.

“I think with food costs being more, maybe, people in the grocery business are being more efficient,” Haval said.

Donating food to local pantries is always a good way for suburbanites to help. Wise said she has been asking people to put nonperishable food collection boxes at their places of work as a way to get more people to give.

Another important way to help, though it may feel more abstract, is by donating money, leaders said. Food providers need money to seek out staples that don’t often end up in donation bins but are in high demand among people who rely on pantries.

But as prices for groceries are at their highest, leaders say monetary donations are down from recent years.

“The community has been incredibly generous since COVID-19,” Sipes said. “But 2022 is about 15% below the amount of donations from last year.”

Havala said a $45 donation would pay for a holiday meal for a family who would otherwise go without.

Loaves and Fishes has a virtual food drive on its website where people can donate money that will pay for items like holiday meals to give to others or pay for staples like milk and eggs. Havala said on Giving Tuesday, Nov. 29, the first $105,000 in cash donations will be matched by BMO Harris Bank and other sponsors.