All around Cook County, food pantries and organizations have seen the demand for their services rise dramatically. Greater Chicago Food Depository, a food bank that provides for over 700 food pantries and food assistance organizations (like Oak Park’s Beyond Hunger) in the county, has adjusted its operation to follow social-distancing protocols.

After some initial bumps in the road, the Food Depository has figured out how to function under dire circumstances.

“Things have stabilized,” said Gregg Trotter, senior manager of public relations at Greater Chicago Food Depository. “There are still daily challenges, but it is definitely better than it was a few weeks ago. Our food pantry partners know the drill now and people are working harder than they have had to before this. But they understand that’s the deal now.”

At their facility, located on the Southwest Side in Chicago, the 70 people who volunteer at the Food Depository are working in smaller groups than they were before due to safety protocols. Everyone is required to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer before they walk in, and are checked for COVID-19-related symptoms. The Food Depository also set up stools 6 feet apart so social distancing can be conducted.

Despite these extra measures, safety protocols haven’t disrupted the volunteers’ ability to fill prepackaged boxes of non-perishable food, which weigh 20-30 pounds, for distribution.

“It looks like an assembly line,” said Trotter, “so [the volunteers] are spread out. Before the pandemic they weren’t bunched up but they were closer together than 6 feet apart. It’s easy to start off 6 feet apart and drift closer as the day goes along, but we are strict about making sure they are practicing social-distancing.”

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, food pantries in vulnerable areas, such as Austin, had to close their doors due to the high demand for food. The Food Depository, with the help of Beyond Hunger and Austin Coming Together, responded by creating pop-up food pantries in various locations in the West and South sides. For each location, they loaded up a truck with the prepackaged boxes the volunteers packed at the facility.

According to Trotter, each distribution location feeds between 500 and 1,000 families in their particular area.

“Even before the pandemic, we were trying to do more for these communities,” he said. “These communities have suffered for years from lack of investment and structural racism practices like redlining or just lack of resources. [The distributions] are a rapid response to the pandemic but we want these partnerships to last beyond that.”

Michelle Zurakowski, executive director of Beyond Hunger in Oak Park, commended the Food Depository for how it handled this situation and providing for Beyond Hunger during this time of need.

“They are a great organization,” she said. “What they have been able to do for us, because their fundraising has been strong, they have been able to give free food to food pantries in the months of April and May.

“On the other hand, the amount of food we can get from them is less than before because the demand across the system is higher. Because we’re not having to purchase food from them, we can then redeploy those dollars out to local wholesalers.”

Even though there has been a lot of progress made in the last few weeks, Trotter says the price of food has gone up to the point where the Food Depository is encouraging monetary donations over food donations. Peanut butter and canned fruit and vegetables are among the items that have seen rising prices.

“[We] encourage people to call your neighborhood food pantry and see what they need,” said Trotter. “Their needs may be totally different. People want to have that hyper-local impact in their neighborhood; they can always reach out to their local food pantry.”

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