The Rev. Sandra Gillespie has run the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry in Bronzeville for more than 14 years, but she’s never faced a challenge like this one.

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, after the state ordered schools and businesses to close, the lines at food pantries grew much longer. The people running those pantries had to make difficult adjustments on the fly in order to stay open. Instead of offering an experience that’s more like grocery shopping, Chosen Tabernacle and most other Food Depository partners distributed prepackaged bags or boxes of food in order to reduce risk.

Food distributions were moved outside. Social distancing was monitored by volunteers. Smiles were hidden beneath protective masks. It was hard but necessary.

There was another challenge: Many of the longtime volunteers at pantries like Chosen Tabernacle are older adults who are considered more at risk of the virus. At times, help came from unexpected places. Much to the delight of Pastor Sandy, as she is known, a new group of volunteers associated with the University of Illinois at Chicago stepped in to help her.

“I probably would have had to close without them. I am so grateful. … What has been an incredible blessing in all of this is how people are stepping up.”

Pastor Sandy Gillespie, food pantry coordinator at Chosen Tabernacle

In fiscal year 2020, the Food Depository distributed the equivalent of more than 77.5 million meals – the most ever in the organization’s history.

From the onset of the pandemic, the Food Depository provided resources and guidance to our network of food pantries in order to keep them safe and operational. Despite the immense challenges, more than 70 percent of food pantries in our network continued to serve people during the pandemic.

The need was and continued be staggering. Our network of food pantries and similar programs served more than twice the number of people in the early months of the pandemic response – between April and June – then it did in January to March.

We are immensely grateful to all of our partners, who showed incredible courage and creativity. And we’re grateful to our donors who supported this critical, life-saving work.