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School Street Food Pantry provides in time of uncertainty

Red donation tub full of items with

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has left students with many questions, from wondering how classes will be completed online to those who remain on campus thinking about having enough to eat. The School Street Food Pantry is working to eliminate that worry by finding a way to remain open after an executive order for residents to stay sheltered.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued that edict to take effect for the entire state on March 21. Bars closed and restaurants went to carry-out or delivery only as part of the governor’s plan that will be in place at least through the rest of the month. Employees were told to work from home, making the campus even more desolate. And yet there is still plenty of activity at the School Street Food Pantry in the First United Methodist Church in Normal.

Opened in fall 2018 as a way to address food insecurity among ISU’s student body, pantry volunteers remain committed to providing Redbirds with food and basic supplies. It is remaining open on Friday afternoons. The service can continue because Pritzker allowed essential services such as food distribution to continue.

To limit contact, students are no longer entering the pantry to select items. Volunteers instead prepare boxes and bags that include staples such as toilet paper, canned vegetables and tuna, as well as pantry basics of oatmeal, rice, and pasta. Most of the items are nonperishable.

“We feel we have to stay open to aid those students who are experiencing food insecurity,” said Community Engagement Coordinator Doris Groves ’81, who is retired from ISU as the executive director of Alumni Engagement. She knows the pantry is needed now more than ever before given empty shelves in every grocery store.

“With COVID-19, we want to try to help meet students’ needs as much as possible,” Groves said. “We thought at the very least we could try to provide enough food to cover a few meals each week.”

The pantry serves about 125 students weekly. They show their Redbird card and are normally issued a canvas bag they can fill with anything in the pantry. Options typically include produce, frozen foods, dairy, and meats. Now the pantry operates with increased precautions to ensure the health of students and volunteers. For example, there are no more than seven volunteers in the pantry each day, with those over the age of 60 encouraged to limit their time working given the virus is still spreading.

While volunteers have handled the changes well and students remain grateful, there are noticeable differences as a result of no face-to-face contact. “We pride ourselves on allowing students to shop for what they need in our pantry and having a variety of what students may want,” Groves said. “The pandemic has limited our ability to do that.”

Despite differences in the mode of operation, students have been appreciative that the pantry remains open. Although there are not as many donations from food drives planned at the University, the volunteers at the pantry are still working together and hoping for the best. They welcome all help to keep the doors open for students, including from individuals who are able to provide monetary support.

“At this time, we are more in need of financial contributions because we are purchasing our items as opposed to depending on food drives,” Groves said. “That is the best way to help.”

To make a contribution, send a check to First United Methodist Church with School Street Pantry in the memo line. The church address is 211 N. School Street, Normal, IL 61761.