A volunteer with the Northern Illinois Food Bank prepares fresh produce for distribution amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Methodists are meeting the need to feed people across northern Illinois during this time of crisis. With thousands of people facing unemployment and economic hard times, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting access to nutritious food for many.

To respond to the increased need, the United Methodist Foundation (UMF) of the Northern Illinois Conference initially pledged to double donations up to $50,000 to the three food banks serving our area during the month of May, thanks to a bequest given from a pastor who served the Conference for decades. The recipients included the River Bend Food Bank in Davenport, Iowa, the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

By May 26, donations poured in and the match was made totaling a $100,000 given to the food banks. Inspired by the generosity, the Foundation board quickly responded by voting unanimously to increase the match to $75,000. By May 29, the food banks reported donations exceeding $75,000 totaling more than $150,000 going to help feed our communities!

Mindy Cadogan, member of Plainfield UMC, donated to the Northern Illinois Food Bank to honor fellow church member Elmer Eddy, who has been driving his pick-up truck every month to the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva for more than 12 years to get produce and other supplies for the Ridgewood United Community Pantry in East Joliet. Ridgewood United is hosted by Trinity UMC in Joliet and is served by several UM churches in the area.

Cadogan serves as a clinical pharmacist in a hospital and has seen first-hand the health impact of the virus. She said this was “perfect timing” for this match from the UMF because the need is so great with the rising unemployment rate. “I can’t physically be there to help right now, which is hard for me, so I thought this was a great way of giving back,” said Cadogan.

Elmer Eddy says on his last trip to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, he picked up nearly one ton of food in his truck. The need has more than doubled. Typically, Ridgewood United serves about 30 families a week. Most recently they fed nearly 80 families.

UMF President Rev. Chris Walters discussed with the Foundation’s grants committee in April how they could help rally the church to make a difference during this sudden and massive economic dislocation.

“With millions of people filing for unemployment, it quickly became clear a basic need for food would most immediately be met through the food bank system, which stretches dollars in amazing ways,” said Walters. “United Methodists in Northern Illinois have strong ties to these three food banks, which all three are reporting an increase in demand since the pandemic hit the area.”

The Northern Illinois Food Bank has increased the number of daily meals they provide from 190,000 to 220,000 and they expect those numbers to grow in the coming months.

“We know that many people who suddenly and unexpectedly lost their jobs have found themselves at one of our food pantries, Mobile Pantries or Pop-Up markets for the first time and we are glad that we can help relieve some of their stress,” said Hester Bury, Northern Illinois Food Bank Development officer. “We are so grateful to the UMF for this generous challenge that has encouraged so many individuals and congregations to support our work to provide food assistance to our neighbors at this time of unprecedented need.”

River Bend Food Bank has seen an increased demand of about 30% in their service area and a dramatic decrease in their food donations, causing a significant impact on their expenses because they must buy food that was previously donated.

“We distributed a record 1,825,284 meals in the month of April (up 34% from the average over the previous 12 months),” said Jenny Brinkmeyer, River Bend Food Bank’s Donor Relations Officer.

Brinkmeyer said the response from the community including individuals, organizations and businesses has been incredible. “Their trust and amazing generosity is vital to keeping our mission alive, and we are so grateful for all of the support we’ve received,” said Brinkmeyer. “Thank you so much to the UMF of the Northern Illinois Conference for this wonderful match opportunity and to everyone who has participated in it to help the thousands of guests who so desperately need help right now.”

In the early days of the pandemic, when schools and businesses were ordered to close, the Greater Chicago Food Depository moved swiftly to help their partners serve a growing number of people facing hunger.

“To best serve communities already facing higher risks of poverty and food insecurity, predominantly on the city’s South and West sides, the Food Depository launched new pop-up distributions in partnership with faith and community partners,” said Kelly Klein Senior Director of Corporate & Foundation Relations with the Food Depository. “Each distribution serves between 500 to 1,000 households in need. Families receive bags of fresh produce, protein and a box filled with 20 to 30 pounds of nonperishable goods. None of this would have been possible without the outpouring of generosity from supporters like the United Methodist Foundation.”

The final amount of donations will be accounted for in June, but Walters is thrilled that they’ve already exceeded the $75,000 match. “Several churches raised money collectively. Several donors designated local food pantry partners of the food banks to receive agency credit. Through this match, generous Methodists will distribute many tons of food, serving nearly one million meals!” said Walters.

Jesus said, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and Walters added, “that’s what you, church, have done. Thank you for your generosity and compassion!”

Written by Anne-Marie Gerhardt, Director of Communications, for the NIC’s June/July Reporter