With Thanksgiving just a week away and the holiday season around the corner, one organization working to feed the community is taking a moment to celebrate a milestone.
Today marks 15 years since Wesley Food Pantry opened its doors to Champaign-Urbana, and a lot has changed in that time. Just five years ago, Wesley distributed food one night a month at its single location on Green and Goodwin in Urbana. Now, it’s open five days a week across three brick-and-mortar spots and delivering food around the community with a mobile pantry.
According to Wesley, the pantry has served nearly 200,000 people. It offers its clients a chance to choose the food they want, expanding its selection to meet the needs of Champaign-Urbana’s culinarily diverse community.
“We’ve designed it to have more of a shopping experience so that it doesn’t feel different,” said Dawn Longfellow, the director of the Wesley Food Pantry.
She said maintaining that welcoming and natural environment lets the pantry’s clients feel more comfortable and reduces the stress of getting help with food. All of Wesley’s locations are designed to give comfort to its patrons and make food more accessible.
Wesley Food Pantry’s location at the University of Illinois’ Activities and Recreation Center, for example, is housed in the building’s instructional kitchen. “Students often are taking classes and leaving with food,” said Longfellow. “So, it’s not suspect, it doesn’t really stand out that a student comes in and gets a bag of food.”
Wesley’s third constant location is at Parkland College. Between it and its two locations on campus at the U of I, the organization is always working to meet the food needs of area college students.
Food insecurity among college students is more commonplace than most people know. It goes beyond just living off ramen noodles. Longfellow explained that young people in college are facing the same challenges as young people elsewhere.
“When those students become college students, they don’t get new families,” said Longfellow. “So, really that same percentage of college students you would expect to also need a little bit of help.”
The pandemic made the situation worse. Longfellow said since it began, Wesley Food Pantry has served an increasing number of people in college.
She said Wesley serves a lot of graduate students who often don’t have the time to take another job on top of their demanding studies to afford groceries. It also sees many international students who are struggling to deal with being separated from their families without a support system.
Longfellow noted that trying to feed college students and advocating for their needs can be difficult from multiple sides.
“We have to convince our donors that that the situation exists and that there is a problem we’re trying to address,” said Longfellow. “But we also have to convince those students that are in need that we’re here for them as well. A lot of times younger people feel like ‘There’s people in more need than me,’ or ‘That’s for somebody that’s in a more difficult situation than mine.’ But we want to make it clear that we’re here for everybody.”
The pandemic has also changed the way Wesley operates. Because of restrictions on gatherings and social distancing, the pantry is still mostly offering drive-up opportunities to clients instead of letting them walk around.
Longfellow said that has really affected the culture of the pantry, where community members, churchgoers, and students all volunteer to help deliver food to clients. She said the connections between people working and shopping at Wesley Food Pantry aren’t the same as they once were before the pandemic.
“Having that shared empathy, being able to hear people’s stories and just get to know them as people,” said Longfellow. “We’ve been missing that piece of the puzzle.”
She said for the college students that volunteer, that missing puzzle piece is especially disappointing. Many students choose to help at Wesley Food Pantry to give back to the community and experience the culture of Champaign-Urbana.
However, COVID-19 did offer a silver lining. Longfellow said there was an outpouring of available resources when the pandemic first began, meaning the pantry saw a reduction in clientele, offering it a chance to shift out of high gear and strategize about how to best serve the community.
“In that last year and a half, we’ve added a lot of cultural products to address specific diets,” said Longfellow. “It’s been a good time for us to get to know what people’s really specific needs were.”
The pantry now regularly offers vegetarian and Halal meat options so people on restricted diets can get protein sources. It also expanded its produce selection and started stocking more sizes of packaged food to fit different needs.
Over 15 years, and through a pandemic, Wesley Food Pantry has worked hard to keep up with the needs of Champaign-Urbana. A few new programs brought on by the pandemic are also likely to stay as the pantry hopes to continue the trend.
Wesley’s mobile “pop-up” pantry has been making trips around the community to places where transportation to the three physical locations isn’t easy. Longfellow said the easiest way to address the problem of accessibility is to bring the food to the people who need it.
“It’s been really successful, and I see it growing,” she said.
Wesley Food Pantry’s locations and schedules are available online at wesleypantry.org.