Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves and fishes was an uplifting miracle, but the multiplying number of needy the Downers Grove Area FISH food pantry is serving is a cause for concern and care.
The pantry and community services group, which serves Darien, Downers Grove, Lisle, Westmont and Woodridge, is seeing the effects of COVID-19 up close and needs assistance as the numbers it helps surge.
“Our first drive-up [as COVID took hold and the group took food distribution outdoors] was March 16. We had 15 families drive up, given a prepackaged bag of cereal, pasta, sauce, mac and cheese, canned vegetables, canned soup,” said Deb Aguzino, who co-manages the Downers Grove area FISH with Lisa Rasin. “We noticed how demand grew every week on Mondays [distribution day].”
Demand grew so much that FISH has expanded its hours beyond its standard 9 to 11 a.m. to 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
“It’s amazing, on Sept. 26, we had 60 cars serving 64 families. That’s four times what we were dealing with in March” Aguzino said. “Four of our FISH drivers are the ones delivering the pantry to some seniors who don’t have transportation at all. On average, the Monday before COVID, 20 people came in. Now it’s 60 cars. Take an average of three per car familywise and sometimes a car pool, that’s close to 150 people we’re serving.”
In addition to an array of both perishable and nonperishable food offerings, FISH offers financial assistance for needs like housing, electric bills, car repairs and eyeglasses. It also operates a clothes closet, which is currently closed due to the pandemic, and offers transportation services.
“We’re trying to make sure people in our community are aware of what we’re doing,” Rasin said. “However, so many of our people have lost jobs and are having trouble making ends meet. To keep people safe, we have a drive-up, they are given a sheet for our Choice Pantry and they can choose 15 to 20 items, plus fruit, veggies, meat and milk.
“We take the list and have great bagging ladies who will custom bag each order along with meat,” Rasin added. “They have a choice: hot dog, pork or bacon depending on inventory, which changes weekly. There’s also bakery, dog food and cat food sometimes.”
Downers Grove Area FISH, which is a 100 percent volunteer organization with operating expenses of just 1 percent for items such as copy paper and other administrative needs, could not help so many without solid community support.
“We are so grateful for their generous support and amazing support,” Aguzino said. “They have really stepped up in recent months, helping financially via PayPal [there’s a link on the group’s website] and the Giving DuPage website.”
In addition to financial support, many community members have been dropping off much-needed supplies like toilet paper, paper towels, fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned goods. “It’s amazing the outpouring from the community,” Aguzino said.
“We are always looking for donations – either produce or financial,” Rasin added. “We need to buy food on occasion, but no one gets paid.”
The group even has received donations from children.
“A few bucks from a kid’s birthday money,” Aguzino said, “and money from the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Rotary, Grow Foundation and many others.”
FISH also picks up food weekly from the Downers Grove Jewel at 1148 Ogden Ave. and enjoys donations from the Northern Illinois Food Bank, Rasin said. Letter carriers also have helped out financially during food drives.
“We’re also reaching out to other organizations in the community. We’re talking to school districts 58 and 99 – they have a lot of families in need – and giving them the opportunity to stop by on Mondays to get food if necessary. We’re all a team here and whatever we can do for them, we do,” Rasin said.
FISH is running its Choice Pantry at 4340 Prince St. but will move into the new Downers Grove Township building at 4341 Saratoga Ave. in February. This will give the group an easily accessible ground-floor presence. For the last 30-plus years it has been operating out of the basement of its current space.
“Half [of the new space] will be a senior center and half our food pantry and clothes closet,” Rasin said.
FISH, started by a Christian minister in the early 1960s in England, was started in Downers Grove by Buzz Emerson, who learned about the group in Reader’s Digest.
“He read about how people would help their neighbors,” said Rasin, who added, “We have to give a thanks to Ruth Anderson, one of the founding members, and her team for all their efforts over the past 50 years. She’s semiretired but still around.”
For information on donating time, money or food, call 630-964-7776 or visit www.downersgrovefish.org.