The reality of a world during the COVID-19 pandemic is that jobs are not safe, and for the unemployed, food can be scarce. Since the pandemic began, one in six families are now considered food insecure.

In 2019, the President and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Pantry, Julie Yurko, refused to sit back as the number of hungry neighbors in need continued to swell. She remembered reading the book ‘Delivering Happiness’, written by the founder of Zappos and was inspired.

“As I’m reading and understanding their philosophy about customer service and convenience, I thought, ‘why don’t we have this in the charitable food sector,” Yurko said.

So Yurko and her team “normalized” the food pantry experience and took the shopping online. That click-and-collect model you see at Zappos, Amazon, Walmart and more can be seen on ‘My Pantry Express’, delivering the same courtesy for the hungry, providing a service more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In just six weeks, they figured out how to grow by 30 percent and sustain it, fulfilling 34,000 orders and 1.2 million meals to 13 counties last year.

Yurko said there are three reasons people are needing help to fill their own pantry and don’t ask for it.

“Either they don’t know about us, they can’t get to us or they’re ashamed,” Yurko said.

This modernized system allows neighbors in need to fill out their order online, then pick up their groceries at any one of 20 different sites. In Lake County, a pilot program is being tested where DoorDash delivers.

Fresh dairy, produce and desserts are among some 40 different items to choose from, all being accessible on the My Pantry Express website.

“While we can’t solve everything that is going on in their lives, we can at least provide this assurance that they will have groceries so they can take care of other things in their lives,” Weija Chang of My Pantry Express said.

My Pantry Express knows the new system is working, helping the 40 to 50 percent of its customers that have never shopped in a food pantry before.

The volunteers are busy in the warehouse, shopping, sorting and packing so barriers to accessing critical services are broken down.

For Marilyn Alvarado, a mother of five who is recently out of job, being able to keep food on the shelf while never losing their dignity helps choose what they need for a full meal when they may otherwise feel empty inside.

“It helps them feel normal and like everybody else. It helps them feel valued, loved and cared for and that’s what we want here is we want everybody to feel loved,” Yurko said.

My Pantry Express has grown leaps and bounds during the pandemic, with significant plans for expansion so they can share food and one of the most basic expressions of love to as many households as possible.

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