Woodridge, IL–Turning the West Suburban Community Pantry’s annual Chef’s Culinary Challenge into a virtual event this year was daunting, but hosting more than 350 guests for an in-person celebration of culinary offerings was impossible in light of COVID-19 public health restrictions.  “Not having our largest annual fundraiser would have put extreme financial strain on our ability to provide food for people in need, and we are already strained as demand has nearly tripled,” says Executive Director Laura Coyle.  “I’m proud to say our team rose to this challenge like they have every challenge we’ve faced since March.”

When the pandemic hit, the Pantry was in the midst of a capital campaign to expand their facilities for both in-person Pantry shopping and online ordering.  A larger warehouse, drive-up pick-up bays, larger food donation-receiving space, expanded lobby and private intake offices, a classroom/conference room and staff offices are currently under construction.  Food delivery moved to boxes loaded into clients’ cars.  “At one point nearly 100 cars lined up out to Route 53,” says Coyle. “The Woodridge Police were wonderful at helping us manage the traffic.”  Senior volunteers were replaced with younger people who were at lesser risk for the virus.  Warehouse companies donated boxes.  And people in need kept coming.

On September 24, the pantry hosted its virtual Chef’s Culinary Celebration. Sponsors included the Ann & Victor Pokorny Memorial Fund, Marquette Companies and Century 21 Affiliated Ryan Hill Group. Nearly 300 guests assembled at numerous parties at private homes across DuPage County to enjoy the culinary offerings of chefs from Belgio’s Catering, Naperville, Cadence Kitchen & Co. and The Foxtail in Downers Grove, Caffe di Moda in Lisle, Elements at Water Street in Naperville, Girl & the Goat, Chicago and SixtyFour Wine Bar & Kitchen in Naperville.

“We thought we might get 150 or 200 people to take part, and we adjusted our goal down from last year’s live event,” says Development Manager Lisa Spaeth. “We were thrilled to see the level of interest and the participation in both the online auction and the virtual live fund-a-need.  It was a great way to grow awareness around the issue of hunger in our area, and raise critical funds, while acknowledging the importance of food to all people.”  The event raised nearly double the goal, exceeding the amount raised at last year’s live event.

“The Board and staff are incredibly grateful to all who participated in this landmark event for the Pantry,” says Board of Directors Chair Jeff Sietz. “At a time when so many are in such need, it is gratifying to know that we have the support of the community. We could not have made this happen without the support of the sponsors, the restaurants, caterers, bakeries, wine merchants, auction donors and the many people who attended.”

The West Suburban Community Pantry is headquartered in Woodridge, and serves people living in areas higher-than-average poverty, including areas of Bolingbrook, Lisle, Naperville, Downers Grove, Darien, Willowbrook, Westmont and Romeoville.   The group recently opened its first In-school Pantry at Irene King Elementary School in Romeoville, provides food to residential clients Bridge Communities and DuPage PADs and offers home deliveries to seniors as well as providing meal support to school students year-round.

Coyle notes that the money raised through the Chef’s Culinary Celebration has helped alleviate the strain of the past several months, but she knows winter will bring new challenges. “We’re not out of the woods, by any means,” she says. “COVID restrictions, unemployment, higher food costs and health and safety concerns continue and may get worse in the coming months.  We are committed to ending hunger by expanding our reach through innovation and technology, and continuing to treat our neighbors in need with dignity and care.”