COVID-19 hampers food distribution at Eastern Illinois Foodbank

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Naomi Diaz

Eastern Illinois Foodbank's trucks at its facility in Urbana on North Shore Drive.

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank has been hampered by delays and a drop in volunteers and donations since the COVID-19 virus hit in March, but officials say donations are rebounding and they are preparing to deal with a predicted increase of 63,000 people. 

During the March lockdown, Gavin Gordon, assistant inventory manager at the foodbank, said the pandemic delayed inventory and brought food prices up from $10 to $15.

“Many of the loads I purchased in April did not arrive until June, July, or in some cases August,” said Gordon in a recent email. “I’m still waiting on one that usually would have come in within two to three weeks.”

Food insecurity is on the rise in eastern Illinois and Champaign County according to hunger relief organizations, CU-CitizenAccess reported earlier this year.

Eastern Illinois Foodbank heavily relies on donations and volunteers in order to serve and distribute food to over 220 food pantries and agencies across Illinois. COVID-19 had affected their resources drastically during its first months. 

“The donation change at the beginning was significant, meat and bread donations went way down,” said Gordon. “But we were able to get back to normal after a month or two.”

Eastern Illinois Foodbank publishes regular data throughout the year on their services. This chart is from October 2020.

Volunteers at the foodbank have still been on the decline. To ensure social distancing practices were being followed, the foodbank had to limit the number of volunteers in the warehouse, particularly during food repacks, said Eastern Illinois’s Relations Manager Amanda Borden.

This changed the timeframe of how many boxes could get packed within a certain time limit. 

Pre-pandemic, Eastern Illinois Foodbank provided food and grocery products to 100,000 people in 18 different Eastern counties in Illinois. Today, they project the number of those in need to increase by 63,000.

Borden said there are currently 116,000 individuals facing food insecurity in Eastern Illinois. But the second wave of COVID-19 with lockdowns has emerged, and Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” statistics show that number could rise to 163,000. 

According to Feeding America, food insecurity in Champaign County has affected 23,020 people. Feeding America is a national charity that supports food banks and other suppliers of meals to people in need.

Borden said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is converting their “foodmobile” distribution to a drive-thru model. Now, meals will be pre-boxed and clients will pick up meals by driving up to the window of a food distribution truck. 

“It keeps everyone safe, but it does not allow for as much client choice,” said Borden in an email. 

The foodbank expects the second wave of COVID-19 will continue to increase the need for “emergency food,” and they are preparing for just that.

According to Eastern Illinois’s 2020 Annual Report, the staff plans to secure greater amounts of food, adding truck routes throughout the 18-county service areas and increasing their cold storage capacity in their warehouse. 

President and CEO of Eastern Illinois Foodbank Jim Hires said he’s “proud” of how their foodbank has risen to the challenges they have faced during the pandemic. 

“As the holidays approach, we know many of our neighbors will be turning to the foodbank and our agency partners for help in great numbers,” said Hires in the 2020 report. “I am confident that with your continued support we will be able to provide not just nourishing food, but hope as well.”

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