The Northern Illinois Food Bank is honoring, if not actually celebrating, its 40th anniversary of serving neighbors in need.
“We wanted to recognize the 40th anniversary, but we don’t want to say we’re celebrating it because we don’t want to celebrate that there’s been hunger in the community for over 40 years,” said Chief Philanthropy Officer Maeven Sipes. “We want to acknowledge the impact that the food bank, along with everybody that has come along beside us, has made over these last 40 years.”
To help mark the milestone, officials at the food bank held their first Founder’s Day event at the main office in Geneva a few weeks ago. More than 100 people attended a brief ceremony, took tours, worked volunteer shifts and saw the unveiling of a new outdoor reflection area in honor of their late founder Sister Rosemarie Burian, on what would have been her 87th birthday.
She founded the food bank in Carol Stream with a small group of like-minded volunteers who saw hungry people in their community.
“We didn’t have anything but Sister Rosemarie’s vision, we didn’t have a staff, we didn’t have any money,” said Lois Sheridan, a founding board member. “And we had to convince people that there was in fact a need in DuPage County and other counties.”
Sheridan and her husband, Gerald, knew Sister Rosemarie from St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Wheaton, where they met many people dealing with food insecurity.
“She wanted a place where people would feel welcome and get their needs met,” Sheridan said. “So she took a year sabbatical and planned this whole thing.”
Four decades later, Sheridan still has trouble believing what the food bank has become.
“They are so innovative,” she said. “Every time I go back they are doing something different to try harder to reach people and get the food to them. It’s just wonderful to see the growth and development.”
The reality of that growth is bittersweet, however.
“We always said we would be out of business in 10 years when the economy picked up, and you can see what has happened 40 years later,” she said. “The need is still growing exponentially. Thankfully the Northern Illinois Food Bank is there to serve it.”
“We wanted to recognize the 40th anniversary, but we don’t want to say we’re celebrating it because we don’t want to celebrate that there’s been hunger in the community for over 40 years. We want to acknowledge the impact that the food bank, along with everybody that has come along beside us, has made over these last 40 years.”— Maeven Sipes, Northern Illinois Food Bank Chief Philanthropy Officer
Sister Rosemarie founded the food bank with the idea of rescuing food that was going to waste and getting it to people who needed it. The way they get their food has evolved over the years, and now Sipes says the focus is on how they get it to their neighbors.
“We’re still all about getting enough food out that’s nutritious and that people want, but it’s the experience, and it’s how are we doing that with dignity,” Sipes said. “And how are we reaching people that we might not have been able to be reached before because of barriers or just not knowing us or not feeling comfortable coming.”
The Northern Illinois Food Bank works with more than 900 food pantries, mobile food truck markets, soup kitchens and feeding programs to provide 80 million meals a year to people across 13 counties.
The food bank also does direct distributions, including at the new Winnebago Community Market in Rockford, as well as operates a mobile market program with trucks that distribute from parking lots. There’s also My Pantry Express, an online food pantry started, quite presciently, in 2019 before the pandemic.
All told, the food bank now serves more than 500,000 people each month – more than at the height of the pandemic.
Sipes said the numbers speak to food bank’s ability to get the word out and increase access.
“But it also speaks to the fact that a lot of families are still struggling and stuff is really expensive right now,” she said. “We want to make sure we have the food available for people when they’re finally able to have the courage to come and ask for help, but we want to make sure that they’re feeling dignified in how they’re doing that.”
Sheridan said it’s the ethos of “empowering neighbors” that makes the food bank special.
“It’s not saying we’re reaching down to lift somebody up, which implies superiority,” she said. “It’s ‘empowering neighbors,’ we’re all in this together, and I just love that.”