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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Loaves & Fishes Community Services – Future strong at 40 years

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In 1984, a dedicated group of compassionate members of St. Raphael Catholic Church realized there were families without enough food, so they assembled a small food pantry in a closet of the church. Today, 40 years later, Loaves & Fishes is serving more than 8,000 people each week in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will Counties. There are 2.3 million people in these four counties and 1 in 5 people are in low-income/poverty. The story of how Loaves & Fishes went from “there to here” reflects thousands of people who were inspired to join along the way making a profound difference to those in need.

Much has happened in those 40 years. When the church room became too small, a trailer was parked on the premises and volunteers lovingly stocked it with donated food. Other congregations became engaged and soon Fifth Avenue in Naperville became home to the food pantry. For many years, hundreds of families were served from the Fifth Avenue space where clients were given bags of pre-chosen groceries. All involved were pleased when Loaves & Fishes moved to “client choice” so people could pick from a selection of food. Along the way, the generosity of spirit was contagious, and the volunteer corps continued to grow, spanning several generations. However, more people needing help came forward, too; the cramped space became very limiting.

In 2008, despite a recession, Loaves & Fishes took a giant leap of faith to plan for a new facility in Naperville on High Grove Lane. Ultimately, a new building was constructed, and it was an exciting day when the ribbon was cut in 2011. Now known as the Frank J. Rus & Donald S. Toy Food Market & Resource Center, this remains the flagship building and still houses the grocery market and offices. It was during that time that the service area was expanded to include all of DuPage County. The grocery market was set up exactly like a grocery store and clients could come in and shop the aisles with a cart. Dignity was always at the forefront of the experience and remains so today.

The past ten years have seen incredible growth on a number of levels. As those experiencing food insecurity are typically struggling financially, the team has sought to add programs that help clients overcome those challenges. In 2016 Loaves & Fishes merged with then-Naperville CARES to further develop programs for self-sufficiency. This remains a huge benefit for clients who had previously needed to go to two locations for services. The programs include emergency assistance for rent or utilities, assistance with public benefits, car donations, VITA (volunteer income tax assistance), and employment readiness help. In 2017, the Moving Up program was initiated. This 20-session intensive helps clients determine the barriers that are keeping them from moving forward and assists them in developing their own plan for the future. The Moving Up graduation is always an inspiring moment that speaks volumes about the resiliency and fortitude of our clients.

An area of emphasis for Loaves & Fishes is the focus on healthy food. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk, and eggs. A poor diet contributes to health challenges that undermine progress toward self-sufficiency. Many people struggling with a low income then need to purchase cheaper food which works against overall health and a negative cycle ensues. Loaves & Fishes has made a resounding commitment to serving healthy food to break that unhealthy cycle. Yet, the food supply is one of the organization’s greatest challenges today. To help the food supply keep pace with the rapid increase in clients, Loaves & Fishes developed a Food Supply Task Force that continually seeks new sources. In spite of this challenge, last year Loaves & Fishes distributed a record of more than 6.4 million pounds of food.

We couldn’t look back over the past 40 years without including the pandemic. Like everyone else, Loaves & Fishes needed to immediately adapt to this unprecedented situation. Forever seared in our minds are the images of people in retail grocery stores heaping their carts with groceries and personal supplies. It was heartbreaking to think of those who couldn’t stock up. Our overriding goal was to continue to serve the suddenly big need despite all the obstacles presented. The organization immediately went to curbside delivery which required significant changes in process. Because of restrictions on the number of people who could be together and to keep our volunteers safe, we had to reduce the number of volunteers by 80% during that time. Staff were redirected out of some non-food departments to help distribute food. The lines were long, but the need was met.

Long before the pandemic, Loaves & Fishes was examining ways to serve more people. Several ideas were thoughtfully explored and ultimately a “hub and spoke” model was developed. The hub is a central food processing warehouse where all the food is received, processed, and stored. Then, it is sent to various “spoke” locations for distribution, many directly into neighborhoods. The hub and spoke model makes it possible to scale our operations such that more people can be served in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. The vision was brought to life in 2021 when the Food Distribution Hub was opened at 580 Exchange Court in Aurora. The 30,000-square-foot warehouse with substantial cold storage was later renamed the Linnea Eleanor Rutkowski Food Distribution Hub.

The hub is particularly helpful during holiday time. Holiday meals have become a hallmark of the Loaves & Fishes experience, especially at Thanksgiving. Clients are given all the groceries necessary to cook a full Thanksgiving meal, including the turkey. Volunteers really get a work-out on the days the meals are distributed hoisting turkeys into carts and car trunks. The meals are very meaningful for clients, and one shared her story about receiving Thanksgiving groceries. She had been divorced five years earlier and had not been able to provide a Thanksgiving meal for her children since then, so she sent them to friend’s houses on that day. But after receiving the Loaves & Fishes holiday meal, she said, “My children and I haven’t had a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal all together in five years since my divorce. It was the best moment of my life sitting down with them for an amazing home-cooked meal. What your volunteers did for me touched my heart to its core. I cannot thank Loaves & Fishes enough and especially the volunteers for letting my family experience a normal holiday, a traditional holiday, for the first time since disaster struck our family.”

This client mentioned the incredible volunteers at Loaves & Fishes. Along the way to 40 years, many, many people have stepped forward to volunteer. From a few people at a church to more than 1,000 volunteers today, people have always been at the core of Loaves & Fishes. On any given day, there may be more than 150 compassionate volunteers working, from teens to some nearing 90. Last year, our dedicated volunteers worked more than 87,000 hours, the equivalent of 45 full-time employees.

Over the years, innovation has flourished at Loaves & Fishes. Two initiatives that have been particularly helpful are the Virtual Food Drive and our Online Ordering System. The Virtual Food Drive makes it possible for people to contribute food online. Donors choose from a menu of most needed items and purchase them, and Loaves & Fishes does the shopping. The online ordering program operates much like a regular retail grocery store. Clients place an order online and then come at a designated window of time to pick it up. This is extremely helpful for clients with small children, those with challenging work hours, or clients with disabilities. In a collaborative move, Loaves & Fishes has made the Online Ordering System available to other food pantries as well.

Our Strategic Plan is titled, “Future Strong” to ensure Loaves & Fishes is built to last for many years to come. As we look to the future, Mike Havala, President & CEO of Loaves & Fishes had this to say, “Breaking the cycle of poverty, food insecurity and poor health is squarely in the crosshairs of our mission. Helping families access healthy food and other safety net services to become more self-sufficient is fundamental in building a strong community. The lives of tens of thousands of people have been greatly improved by the service of many. We are fortunate to be part of a very supportive and involved community. With this foundation, we will continue to build our infrastructure to make sure that everyone in need has access to the help they need.”

The community has generously supported Loaves & Fishes throughout its entire 40 years. It is heartwarming to consider the many people who have touched or been touched by Loaves & Fishes. Especially moving are the children who give in their own special ways, by collecting food instead of gifts for their birthdays or operating lemonade stands. Throughout the organization, the values of compassion, dignity, health, hope, and service are deeply embedded at every level through every person. It is people who are indeed the heart of Loaves & Fishes – those who are served and those who serve and make it possible.

Loaves & Fishes – Fast Facts for the 40th

  1. More than 8,000 people are currently served each week; as Loaves & Fishes approached the year 2000, about 200 people were served a week.
  2. 58% of families have children; last year more than 106,000 children were served.
  3. Last year, more than 1.1 million eggs were provided to clients.
  4. Last year, more than 80,000 gallons of milk were distributed.
  5. Every day that food is distributed, more than 15 tons of food is given to clients.
  6. Since 2011, more than 1,000,000 volunteer hours have been served.
  7. Last year, volunteers contributed 87,000 hours, the equivalent of 45 full-time employees.
  8. Over the years, 2,055 cars have been donated for the Car Donation program; if all the cars were lined up, the line would stretch 6 miles.
  9. Since 2016, 10,353 people have received emergency assistance funds for rent or utilities.
  10. Last year, 99% of emergency assistance and car donation clients moved up on the self-sufficiency scale.

—Nancy Wiersum

Related News, Jan. 30, 2024 / Loaves & Fishes Community Services Partners with Endeavor Health to Promote Increased Access to Food

Loaves & Fishes Community Services has been awarded $297,000 from Endeavor Health to increase access to healthy food by extending their evening and weekend hours of food distribution, aimed at promoting increased access to food.

“We are deeply honored to receive this generous award from Endeavor Health,” said Mike Havala, President/CEO. “Their support is a testament to their commitment to making a positive impact on the community and will play a crucial role in advancing our mission. We are truly grateful for this partnership.”

Endeavor Health selected Loaves & Fishes Community Services as one of 43 local organizations across the Chicagoland area to collaborate on programs focused on behavioral health, violence prevention, housing and food insecurity, access to care and workforce development.

“Our Community Investment Fund has made a remarkable impact since its launch in 2022, touching over 211,000 lives and supporting a significant expansion of behavioral health counseling, bilingual health education and mobile medical services in our communities,” said Kristen Murtos, Chief Innovation & Transformation Officer at Endeavor Health. “At Endeavor Health, we are not just funders but conveners, bringing together diverse groups to cultivate collaboration and innovation. We are thrilled to grow and deepen the impact of our Community Investment Fund this year, marking a significant step forward in our commitment to enhancing health and wellness across the communities we serve.”

 

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Nancy Wiersum
Nancy Wiersumhttp://www.loaves-fishes.org/
Nancy Wiersum is Vice President of Advancement at Loaves & Fishes Community Services and can be contacted at nwiersum@loaves-fishes.org. Visit www.loaves-fishes.org for more information.
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