Why food pantries aren’t just about food anymore by Shannon Cameron

June 17, 2023

We all know that food pantries provide a life-saving resource for families to ensure access to nourishing food, but the charitable food landscape is changing, and we aren’t just about food anymore.

Food pantries are a community hub.

The Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry provides an environment for other nonprofits, along with other local, state, and federal resources, to connect with vulnerable populations. If our neighbors are food insecure, it is highly likely they may need other resources and support beyond food assistance. At the Aurora Food Pantry, we welcome all sorts of outside organizations and agencies to assist our neighbors with things they might need. This may include access to federal food benefits, however, these partnerships provide so much more. On each distribution day, we ensure outside organizations are scheduled to provide valuable information to our neighbors. Some of them include:

As you can see, the last couple on this list are medical partners. Nationwide, we are seeing more emerging partnerships between food pantries and the medical sector. Food and proper nutrition can have a dramatic impact on physical and mental health. These partnerships allow health care agencies  to meet people in their own communities at a place where they feel comfortable. We are able to serve as channels to healthcare for the prevention and management of chronic diseases through screening, education, and referrals. Alternatively, we have many clinicians in medical settings who can screen patients for food insecurity and refer patients to pantries like ours. We receive referrals from Kane County’s IRIS and Rush Copley’s NowPow systems. In clinics that serve high-risk populations, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, food pantries may even be placed inside the clinic to maximize ease and access.

Meeting each individual’s needs is key. Through meeting with the neighbors we serve, we understand that food insecurity is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. If we are to honestly work to end local hunger, we must uncover the reasons why people end up with food insecurity. Dr. Katie Martin has developed an especially comprehensive and personalized framework called More Than Food, which was originally developed and tested in Hartford, CT. In these pantries, members are given access to a Coach for nine months who uses motivational interviewing to help them identify specific goals and actions to take to reach those goals. After reading Dr. Martin’s book and being inspired by the work in Hartford, we created Project Support. This program uses a bilingual case management team to meet with neighbors and perform a needs assessment. Our case managers and neighbors collaboratively set goals to ensure basic needs are met, but also to help them begin to thrive and end their food insecurity. In the past 10 months, Project Support has assisted hundreds of neighbors to receive a variety of help and achieve their goals, some of which include housing, legal aid, medical care, SNAP and Medicare/Medicaid benefits, immigration assistance, mental health care, employment, job training, crisis intervention, food delivery, emergency financial assistance, and so much more. We are grateful for the support of the State of Illinois’s R3 (Restore, Reinveset, Renew) Grant, which allowed the funding of the program and the hiring of our case managers.

Free clothing closet located on the upper level of the pantry

In addition to Project Support, we at the Aurora Food Pantry have offered several supplementary programs, including our Clothing Closet, which allows neighbors to receive free clothing for work, school, or other basic needs. We also have a free library where neighbors can “feed their brains,” not just their bellies. Thanks to the Aurora Public Library-Santori branch and our generous community members, we were able to provide books in Spanish and English to all ages.

Free library at the pantry in the lobby.

The expanded vision for the charitable food system detailed above remains focused on individual neighbors and their families and connecting them with the nutritious food and other resources they need to thrive. However, none of these programs or strategies will change the structure of our food system or the underlying societal issues that contribute to food insecurity. Those changes can only occur through policymaking and government regulation. If you are interested in how policy could solve hunger in America, please read the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s 2022 report entitled Policy Solutions to End Hunger In America: Calling On The White House For Radical Strategy Change.

The challenge is that many neighbors who use the Aurora Food Pantry are focused on meeting their day-to-day needs and may not feel they have the time, energy, or representation to become civically engaged and try to change policies. How do we then give them opportunities to tell their stories and amplify their voices?

University of Illinois Extension Class with their Master Gardeners teaching about growing your own food.

We cannot help a community without the support of the community. Collaboration between social service agencies, governmental bodies, and individual community members is the only way we will be able to ensure we meet our vision at the Aurora Food Pantry, which is a thriving, nourished community. Will you join us?


In solidarity with my neighbors,

Shannon Cameron, Executive Director