Home Christian News As COVID Continues, Church-Run Food Pantries, Ministries Adapt and Expand

As COVID Continues, Church-Run Food Pantries, Ministries Adapt and Expand

For churches and other faith groups, sharing food is part of their DNA.

Northern Illinois Food Bank
Volunteers unload a Northern Illinois Food Bank truck for distribution in a parking lot of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Illinois, Nov. 22, 2021. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

WOODSTOCK, Ill. (RNS) — On a cold, cloudy afternoon in late November, two dozen volunteers were busy unloading a truckload of food in the parking lot just south of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, setting out a table filled with produce, staples and other groceries for that day’s drive-thru mobile food pantry.

Despite the temperature hovering near freezing, Mike Phillips, a member of nearby Grace Lutheran Church, seemed thrilled to be there. The pantry was just opening, and already, close to a dozen cars were lining up.

“If it stays like this all winter,” he told another volunteer with a smile, “it will be great.”

Across the parking lot, Scott Jewitt, area manager for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, was directing traffic. As cars drove up, volunteers brought groceries to them, part of COVID-19 safety precautions. On this Monday, 169 families — 363 adults and 257 kids — will pick up groceries.

The mobile food pantry, which has been running twice a month at St. Anne’s since the beginning of the year, got its start after a nearby nonprofit lost its building and shut down its food program. Staff at the food bank reached out to the Rev. Cathy Daharsh, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in nearby Crystal Lake and chair of a network of local pastors.

Those pastors and their churches agreed to team up, with St. Anne’s hosting the mobile market, while Bethany and other congregations, like Church of the Holy Apostles in nearby McHenry, supplying volunteers and funding.

“During the pandemic, we wanted to roll up our sleeves and say, ‘how can we help?’” Daharsh said. “It really pushed us to collaborate.”

About half of U.S. congregations have some kind of food assistance program, according to data from the 2018 National Congregations Study. And a recent report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that about a third of U.S. congregations saw increased requests for food assistance since the start of the pandemic.

Julie Yurko, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said requests for food assistance were up 30% last year due to the pandemic. This fall, requests for assistance remain 20% higher than before the pandemic.

“The last 18 months have been unprecedented in terms of need,” she said. “COVID and all the related disruptions have really devastated the finances for so many of our families.”

Northern Illinois Food Bank, founded in the early 1980s by a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Rosemarie Burian, works closely with faith-based groups such as St. Anne’s, the Islamic Circle of North America, as well as a suburban Jewish community center. Several megachurches pitch in to help, as do smaller congregations.

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Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications and websites. Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.