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Northern Illinois Food Bank Volunteer Experience – Pop-Ups

According to their website, the vision of the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB) is for everyone in Northern Illinois to have food to thrive. It’s a nonprofit organization and a proud partner of Feeding America, where they serve neighbors in 13 counties with dignity, equity, and convenience, providing 250,000 meals a day.

The NIFB is offering different methods for food distribution. For those who are unable to participate in traditional modes of food distribution, the food bank is offering drive-thru pick-up of groceries. In Lake County, there are several pop-up locations, however, I've only worked at the pop-up markets in Grayslake and Waukegan. The College of Lake County allows the Northern Illinois Food Bank to utilize part of its parking lot several times during the year. The other location is on Route 120, in Waukegan, at the Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep School.

This picture illustrates the smaller sized pop-up market in Waukegan. It's critical that volunteers watch for cars among these 4 stations.

Comparing the two locations, CLC has a much larger parking lot, unlike the parking lot in Waukegan at the prep school. Regarding Waukegan, it means more planning and creativity with the flow of cars. During the last few times of volunteering at these pop-up markets, regardless of location, there were roughly 300 cars gathered in 6 or so lines. Each car (neighbor) can grab more than one meal per vehicle. For example, we often go through 600 meals per event. When a neighbor receives more than one meal, it’s expected that they may be getting additional groceries for family members or friends. I typically see either 1 or 2 meals per vehicle, although a few requested 5 or 6 meals.

Based on my experiences, these outdoor distribution activities flow smoothly, indicating a lot of planning. Having enough volunteering is paramount to ensuring it’s a successful event. Planning also is engaged in providing enough food, which includes a good variety of items. Most families would rather not just have a sack of potatoes and a frozen chicken. Every pop-up event is different, but typically the delivery consists of protein (meat or chicken), canned goods, vegetables, and one item that varies from place to place. During our last event, ice cream was offered by Kind. Another unique thing I observed there was sponsored by ComEd, giving away free light bulbs. I believe there are incentives for them to become more energy efficient, hence, the LED bulbs.

A sampling of what was distributed last week in Waukegan. See the LED light bulbs to the left of the screen.

Depending on the location, there’s a minimum of two lines, each with four stations. Volunteer traffic coordinators will ask the participants to get into groups of four. These volunteers are distributed at various critical points in the parking lot. Therefore, four different vehicles are serviced simultaneously, each at a food station. The group of four will only leave after all cars have been serviced. Another responsibility of the traffic coordinators is ensuring safe entrance and exit to the stations -- safety is essential. There are typically four volunteers distributing groceries at each station so all traffic coordinators and volunteers must be concerned about safety dealing with so many motorists.

Before the event begins, volunteers go through the parking lot to determine their needs. That information is written on the left side of the windshield. For example, if it’s written ‘2T,’ you’re delivering two large meals in the trunk. Sometimes you may see a ‘1B’, meaning they want the groceries in the back seat. Sometimes the driver will change their mind, but typically what’s written on the windshield does not need updating. Once the car is in park, the traffic coordinator will yell out the amount and location. It helps to have a loud voice as some packers are twenty feet away. Once the traffic coordinator stops the next four cars at a safe distance, they’re instructed to scrub the chalk off the windshield (while groceries are being packed).

Some drivers interact with you and may say “thank you” or say “God Bless,” but others are quiet unless asked a question. That surprised me as I anticipated more curiosity and interest from the drivers. Sometimes, we service a $90,000 vehicle with ‘3T’ written on its windshield. My initial reaction is to stare, but I quickly realize I’m volunteering to help those in need of grocery assistance and move on. It’s not my role to pass judgment on anyone seeking free grocery support.

Whether you participate out in the field or inside the warehouse, the NIFB counts on volunteers to make food distribution as efficient as possible. Some of those involved in eliminating hunger are paid employees but the majority of those interested there are volunteers – the volunteers makes a difference with this service. I recently spoke to a NIFB representative who said since Covid, there has been a 40 percent increase in the program’s demand. This increased demand applies to pop-up markets and packaging at the various Northern Illinois locations. If more of a family's budget goes towards paying bills, coming to a food pantry or pop-up event to supplement their food budget can be an effective financial strategy. Because of the food bank servicing many counties in Northern Illinois, neighbors in need should not have to choose between gas and groceries.

Addendum: I volunteer for the Northern Illinois Food Bank because I believe in its mission. They are doing tremendous work in the community. For every dollar donated, the NIFB can purchase $8 of groceries. If you believe in local charity with a minimal amount of waste, you may want to check out the NIFB.

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