‘Everything has changed. Every aspect of our operation,” says Michele Zurakowski, executive director of Beyond Hunger, about her agency’s response to the impact of COVID-19. 

“What it has driven home to us is the disparate impact the virus is having on our Black clients and on the Hispanic immigrant community,” says Zurakowski.

Since COVID hit in March, Beyond Hunger has seen a 250 percent increase in demand for its services at the same moment it had to remake how it delivered its services.

“We’ve seen a major drop in older Black clients from Austin” coming to the Oak Park location to pick up food, said Zurakowski. “They don’t want to take the bus. There’s no more car pooling outside of immediate family.”

In response Beyond Hunger has found ways to deliver food to clients in Austin. They made 300 deliveries in April alone.

“We’ve seen a huge influx in Latino immigrants from Berwyn in particular,” said Zurakowski. The specific challenge with this group is their reluctance to take part in traditional food distribution that comes via funds with ties to the federal government and which require some amount of data collection – names, addresses, birthdates. 

Beyond Hunger’s solution here has been to find a local philanthropist to fund a new program teamed with a social worker who interacts with recipients. The private funding largely eliminates data collection. The agency has also found partners in Berwyn to help serve the 150 families in the program through pop-up distribution days.

We hope with the new (federal) administration that the fear among immigrants will diminish. But it is going to take time,” said Zurakowski.

Beyond Hunger has taken pride in recent years with a distribution model at its facility inside First United Church on Lake Street which allowed clients to roam aisles and select their own food. It was intended to replicate a supermarket and offer more independent choice. That, of course, does not work in a pandemic where social distancing is the rule.

And so the agency invented a drive-through model (with a pedestrian walk-up option for clients without cars) at its Lake Street location. It is an innovation, says Zurakowski, which may outlast the immediate safety demands of the pandemic because driving up in a car, never leaving the car, never entering the facility offers not just safety but a level of privacy.

Privacy is a ratcheted-up concern as people who have never before needed a food pantry – many of them Oak Parkers – now find themselves turning to Beyond Hunger.

Zurakowski started at the old Oak Park Food Pantry in 2008, just ahead of the Great Recession. She sees comparisons between these two devasting events. 

“People don’t want to go to a food pantry. They will work through every resource they have before they do come. It takes a lot of courage on behalf of their families to make that choice,” said Zurakowski. “We are a middle-income community. It is hard to ask for help. It is much easier to give.”

As in 2008, Zurakowski believes the financial impact of the pandemic will last far longer than the successful rollout of vaccines. “After 2008, demands for our services did not peak until 2012. We need to build our resources.”

As always, Beyond Hunger relies heavily on volunteers. In training now volunteers hear the advice about what to do when a client in the drive-through turns out to be the parent you knew from T-ball or ballet lessons. It is a balance, said Zurakowski between absolutely acknowledging that connection without probing the immediate circumstance. 

“We love the drive-through because it cuts down on the stigma,” she says.

Like many local non-profits, Beyond Hunger has had to invent new ways of fundraising as traditional galas and other face-to-face events are not possible now. 

“People have been incredibly generous,” she says. And creative. “We had a local photographer who took family portraits on front porches and donated the proceeds to us. We’ve had kids rake leaves and send us the money.”

The images are seared in peoples’ minds of TV news with miles long lines of cars waiting for a box of food, she says. “Hunger is easy to understand. It is visceral. We’ve all felt hunger. And people have responded. Way more people are giving. People who have never given before. People who have been donors are giving more.”

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