Operations are in flux and systems are shifting swiftly at Beyond Hunger in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, but their commitment to staying open is unwavering. These unprecedented times have forced the 40-year-old organization to modify their traditional approach to addressing food insecurity in Oak Park and beyond.

Beyond Hunger, located in the lower level of First United Church of Oak Park at 848 Lake St., manages an anti-hunger organization servicing more than a dozen communities including several Chicago neighborhoods and multiple western suburbs.

During calmer times the food pantry prides itself on addressing the needs of families and individuals facing food insecurity by providing a dignified shopping experience where visitors shop for their own groceries.  Since social distancing practices have taken effect in Illinois Beyond Hunger has reacted assertively to get food into the hands of those in need.

“We are doing everything we can to always provide food, maximize social distancing and minimize wait times,” says Michele Zurakowski, Beyond Hunger executive director. “As a result, we’ve moved to a modified drive-through model — think of it as a fast food drive thru.”

Pantry manager, Ricardo Garcia, came up with the inventive solution. 

The adapted approach still prioritizes personal choice by asking clients to select from a menu of available items including meats, fresh vegetables, breads, fruits and canned items. After placing an order for their preferred items, visitors wait in their cars or outside while volunteers fill and pack the order. The packages are then passed off to clients through a window.

Zurakowski said the drive-thru model, used for the first time March 14, successfully reduced the number of volunteers needed to get food out during the hours the pantry is open and limited points of contact between visitors and volunteers.

“We served more than 150 people last weekend;” said Zurakowski, “everyone was patient and very grateful we were open.”

In addition to reassuring current pantry clients who are naturally feeling anxious and worried during these uncertain times, Beyond Hunger is bracing for an increase in first-time visitors. The financial toll Covid-19 related closures will likely bring families and individuals to the pantry for the first time in the coming weeks and months. As a result, Beyond Hunger has been singularly focused on getting a handle on pantry operations in the past week.

They have suspended their nutritional education programming, are working to modify their food rescue service called the Surplus Project and are struggling to keep their one-on-one social services program up and running.

“We are hoping to move to online nutrition education,” said Zurakowski, “but we still need to figure out a way to help people apply for SNAP benefits during this time.”

The Surplus Project turns extra cafeteria food into meals for those in need, but the coronavirus related shutdowns prohibit the rescue and delivery of prepared foods. Residents at the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park typically benefit from the creative program, but as of now the program is unable to operate as usual. Additionally, Beyond Hunger’s food-delivery program for home-bound seniors and those with disabilities will need to be modified in the coming weeks.

All this change and innovation comes at a time when Beyond Hunger is typically poised to generate substantial fundraising revenue for its non-profit programs. The Healthy Chef Challenge, scheduled for early April, has been cancelled. The public cooking competition is well-attended in the community and Beyond Hunger anticipated the sponsored event would generate $40,000. The organization’s Can-Do Community Challenge also kicks off in spring. As part of the challenge, students from D97, D90, D200 and local private schools raise approximately $12,000 for the food pantry. With school closures in full effect the organization can no longer count on those funds.

Facing a $52,000 deficit while needs for pantry services are increasing has forced Beyond Hunger to think creatively about fundraising. To offset the losses, the organization is inviting community members to host a virtual food drive or make direct donations. The funds collected will be used to stock the pantry in the coming weeks; Donated dollars can be used to purchase large quantities of food that meets the food pantry’s nutritional goals.

“Community members want to help,” said Zurakowski, “and we know how to make the most of monetary donations thanks to deep relationships with wholesalers and the federal government.”

Make a donation to Beyond Hunger or learn how to host a virtual food drive HERE.

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