Almost three years ago, Michele Zurakowski, the executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, realized that people with disabilities in the 13 ZIP codes served by her nonprofit — which include parts of Austin and other areas of the West Side — often cannot get to First United Church on Lake Street in Oak Park to pick up the groceries they need.

She came up with the idea of starting a delivery service and handed it off to Adriana Riano, the pantry’s program manager, who implemented a pilot program with 20 clients. 

In less than three years, the number of clients has grown to 80 with names still being added. 

“Hunger is on the rise for the suburban working poor and for those on fixed incomes,” said Zurakowski, “Our home delivery program is targeted at ending hunger for those seniors and people with mental health issues whose disabilities make a pantry visit impossible.”

Census data from 2015 revealed that in Oak Park alone 7,382 residents were “food insecure,” the food insecurity rate was 14.2 percent and the unemployment rate was 8 percent.

Deliveries of groceries begin with a referral from Oak Park Township, which screens clients in terms of eligibility and from Thresholds, a Chicago based nonprofit that provides healthcare and housing for peoples with mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

Riano said clients referred by the township are people who can’t physically get to the pantry while those referred by Thresholds are often folks who are unable to be in situations where there are a lot of people because of mental illness.

Once their names are on the list, clients receive a monthly phone call from a pantry volunteer who gives the client a menu of the food items available. The homebound clients get to choose which items will be delivered to them.

“We give our homebound clients the same choices as those who physically come to the pantry,” said Riano. “Choice is a big part of our mission. We want to ensure that our clients get what they want, not what we think they should get.”

Every month 14 drivers and 14 assistants “shop” for food from the OPRF Pantry shelves following each order taken on the phone and assemble boxes of food weighing about 40 pounds. 

Each driver is accompanied by an assistant, because the boxes of food are heavy, especially when they have to be carried up flights of stairs. Because finding parking in Oak Park can be difficult, the driver might stay in a loading zone with hazard lights flashing while the food is carried to the client.

Volunteers also deliver something else to clients – conversation.

“Many of our clients are alone because they don’t have family living in the area,” Riano said, “so a conversation with a volunteer on the phone who is taking their orders or with a driver may be the only conversation they have with another person that day. Respect is one of the core values for everything we do here.”

A typical monthly home delivery weighs about 40 pounds and contains fresh produce, milk, eggs and dry goods. Some of the food distributed by the pantry is “rescued” from local businesses like Prairie Bread, Trader Joe’s, Jimmy John’s, Panera, Jewel Osco, Sugar Beet, Target and many more. 

“Groceries have a time frame in which they have to pull food from their shelves based on their policies regarding the ‘sell by’ date on the package,” Riano said. “Whole Foods, for example, pulls their product at least three days before the expiration date, so the food we receive from them is perfectly eatable.”

Much of the food is received from the Chicago Food Depository, a huge nonprofit which rescues food on a large scale and passes $9 worth of food on to pantries in the metropolitan area at a cost to them of only $1, a fee they charge to cover their overhead expenses.

Riano said that she can always use volunteers and that groups like soccer teams or church organizations often commit to taking one month a year to do the deliveries. To volunteer, call Riano at 708-386-1324, ext. 1104. She will give you information, take your name and turn over it over to the pantry’s volunteer manager.

Volunteers at the OPRF Food Pantry put in 2,100 hours a month, serving about 1,200 clients who come from Oak Park and surrounding communities.