Suburban food pantries experiencing record-high demand, 3 years after pandemic

Visits to suburban food pantries have surged over the past two years, exceeding previous record highs set during the pandemic.

Schaumburg Township’s pantry experienced 33.3% increase in client visits between the fiscal year that ended in February 2023 and the one that ended in February 2024, from 9,809 visits to 13,079.

Diana Nelson, the township’s director of welfare services, said visits are 87% over the past decade.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies more than 800 food pantries in Cook County, has seen similar growth in most suburban areas, Communications Director Man-Yee Lee said.

“Hunger does persist in our community,” she added. “These really are similar to levels we were seeing during the first few months of the pandemic.”

Schaumburg Township’s previous record of 12,804 visits came in 2020-21, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation on food prices and other costs of living lead are the likely causes of the recent surge, Nelson said.

Because of the growing need, this fiscal year will be the first time the township will dip into its general assistance funding to stock the pantry’s shelves instead of relying entirely on donations.

Township Supervisor Tim Heneghan said that with donations no longer keeping pace with demand, the “rainy day” the funding was being saved for has arrived.

Among last year’s clients, 9.5% were new. Of that number, 11.5% identified as immigrants, but that figure is unlikely to be accurate because immigration status is among the questions that aren’t required to be answered for assistance.

“Our mission at the township is to treat all in need with dignity and respect and asking race and ethnicity questions often leads to discomfort and fear,” Nelson said. “Many of our clients are just not interested in answering the question.”

Nevertheless, some proof of residency in Schaumburg Township generally is required. While help isn’t denied to first-time visitors who don’t live in the township, they receive only a single emergency pack along with information on how to find longer-term assistance closer to where they live, Nelson said.

Schaumburg Township Food Pantry experienced record-high demand during the fiscal year that ended on Feb. 29.
John Starks/

Lee emphasized the help asylum-seekers and other newcomers are receiving isn’t keeping food and other humanitarian resources from others in need.

“The work we’re doing doesn’t come at the expense of our long-term neighbors,” she said.

The federal government’s rollback of some pandemic-era benefits last year could be another factor in the recent spike in food pantry demand, Lee said, while noting that the causes of food insecurity always have been varied and complex.

“Food insecurity can happen to anybody,” she added. “It’s one job loss or medical bill away. There should be no stigma in seeking help.”

Because clients aren’t required to answer many personal questions, Schaumburg Township’s conclusions about last year’s spike in demand can’t be based on a broad base of data, Nelson said.

“There was a meeting (last) month of local pantry staff and the consensus was an increase in food insecurity in the area,” she said. “Getting to the root causes is obviously important for change, but many agencies are just trying to fulfill the needs of our neighbors without asking too many questions.”

Empty bins wait in the sorting room of the Schaumburg Township Food Pantry, where household visits during the past year have exceeded record highs set during the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Starks/

The township is organizing a community food drive beginning April 13, running through the annual National Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive on May 11. Donation bins will be placed throughout the community, and their locations that can be found on the township’s website. Donations also can be sent via its Amazon wish list.

Financial donations also are welcome through the website via a check made to Schaumburg Township Foundation with “Food Pantry” listed in the memo, or by cash at the pantry’s reception desk.

Donors to the Letter Carriers’ Drive can fill a bag with nonperishable food items and place it near their mailbox for the letter carrier to pick up and deliver to the area’s designated pantry.

Lee also encourages anyone in need to go to the depository’s website at and click on the “Find Food” icon.

“It’s not we alone who can fight food insecurity,” Nelson said. “A partnership with a local food bank is critical for a food pantry. The township’s partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, in addition to our supportive community, is truly what allows us to serve and provide food for our food-insecure neighbors.”

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