Spotlight On: Northern Illinois Food Bank

Northern Illinois Food Bank

By the most simple definition, food is nourishment. But food is also comfort, security and well-being. It connects family and friends. It brings people together around a table. Food is love. During the holiday season, food plays an important role in family traditions and celebrations. Year round, food is life. What if there was not enough food to put on the table? No Thanksgiving turkey. No Christmas feast. No New Year’s Day meal. More importantly, what if there was not enough food for nourishment every day of the year? According to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, more than 37 million people in the United States are struggling with hunger. And more than 11 million children live in food-insecure households (having limited or uncertain access to enough food). If you were food-insecure where would you go? Who would you turn to for help?

Northern Illinois Food Bank, a Feeding America member, is the seventh largest food bank in the country; it is where half a million residents from 13 northern Illinois counties turn for help. For more than 36 years, Northern Illinois Food Bank has been working toward “solving hunger by providing nutritious meals to those in need through innovative programs and partnerships.”

One of their new programs–My Pantry Express–recently won a Chicago Innovation Award, which recognizes new innovative products or services that are brought to the market each year. MPX is the Food Bank’s answer to its “who are we not reaching” question. MPX utilizes online technology and a unique delivery system to help reduce the barriers that prevent food-insecure people from gaining access to nutrition programs (including the distance from home and the stigma that is often associated with food pantries). Through MPX, food-insecure neighbors can privately shop online, at no cost, for more than 40 grocery staples including milk, produce, frozen meats, canned goods and boxed food. They place online orders and arrange for drive-up pick-ups at convenient times and locations (like parking lots outside of local Walmart and Goodwill stores and neighborhood schools).
The MPX program is still being piloted, but since its inception in February 2019, Northern Illinois Food Bank has fulfilled more than 5,200 orders from 1,400 households. Last Spring, North Chicago Community Partners helped establish the program in North Chicago, which was one of the initial test communities. MPX was first made available to families with students enrolled in NCCP’s After School Enrichment Program at Forrestal School. Then it was expanded to include the whole school. Now MPX is available to the entire North Chicago community, where more than 1,200 orders from 300 households have been fulfilled.

Northern Illinois Food Bank believes that MPX has the potential to “revolutionize the way food banks serve our neighbors.” But before MPX is rolled out on a larger scale, the Food Bank had to make sure the infrastructure (consistent volunteers for distribution, online technology and website development, and a large inventory of products) can support a very high demand, as it is already receiving and fulfilling nearly 400 orders a week.

The neighbor-centered approach that Northern Illinois Food Bank uses to “ensure that every man, woman and child has access to the healthy, nutritious food that they need to thrive” has resulted in successful partnerships with more than 900 food pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs. In Lake County, Northern Illinois Food Bank works with more than 170 partners (including GFF grantees A Safe Place, Beacon Place, Catholic Charities, NCCP, Nuestro Center and PADS).

Working with its partners, volunteers (24,000 people volunteered for the Food Bank in FY19), donors, food manufacturers and retailers, the Food Bank is able to offer a far-reaching network of programs and services, including: two traveling mobile food pantries; four large centers used to acquire, store and distribute meals; the Winnebago Community Market, which was established as a permanent food pantry in Rockford last year; child nutrition BackPack, Afterschool Meals and Summer Meals programs; a Senior Food Box Program, which provides monthly boxes of non-perishable food to seniors in need; Milk2MyPlate, establishing the delivery of more than 300,000 gallons of fresh milk to local agencies; and outreach efforts for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The assistance that Northern Illinois Food Bank provides its member agencies allows them to better serve their clients. For NCCP, the Food Bank supplies cold suppers to more than 400 children enrolled in the After School Enrichment Program. The Food Bank and NCCP also offer food-insecure families a weekend backpack program, which gave 78 families more than 2,500 backpacks full of food last school year. In addition, Northern Illinois Food Bank helps NCCP stock its Family Care Closet. Based out of North Chicago Community High School, the FCC is filled with food, household and hygiene products.

In FY19, Northern Illinois Food Bank distributed 69.1 million meals throughout its service area. The Food Bank’s extensive efforts have helped it meet the meal gap in more than 90 percent of the communities it serves. Today, Northern Illinois Food Bank is only two million more meals away from closing the gap and solving hunger in Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois Food Bank Success Story: Fox Lake resident, Hildy, has found a sense of comfort and security both shopping at and volunteering for Luke 3:11 Share Center, which is a Food Bank member agency in Lake Villa. Hildy was hesitant to turn to a food pantry when she was struggling to cover everyday expenses. After discovering the Share Center, she was pleased that it became a source of comfort—not stress—for her family. Access to fresh produce and organic food and choices on what to take home pleased Hildy. She was able to cook healthy meals for her family. To give back and help others, Hildy also volunteers at the Share Center when she can. “The times that I’ve helped out, it felt good to be on the other side—to not just be getting but also giving.”

Northern Illinois Food Bank By the Numbers: 

In FY19, Northern Illinois Food Bank provided 69.1 million meals to more than 500,000 people across a
13-county  service area                     
9.1 million meals were distributed
in Lake County in
FY19, including 403,590 meals distributed through mobile pantries                 
Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Lake County network members include
59 food pantries,
10 soup kitchens,
37 backpack programs, 52 youth program sites,
6 group homes and
7 senior sites
In FY19, Northern Illinois Food Bank provided 18,727 weekend backpacks full of food to 500 Lake County
13,528 gallons
of milk were distributed in Lake County through
the Food Bank’s Milk2MyPlate program
In FY19, 24,000 volunteers gave 136,000 hours of their time (which equals 60 full-time staff members) to support Northern Illinois Food Bank’s efforts

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