A volunteer moves food on a cart at Wheeling Township Food Pantry

The Wheeling Township food pantry expanded recently to meet a growing need for food assistance in the Northwest suburbs.

“It used to be, ‘You live in Arlington Heights, what do you mean you are hungry?’” Julie Villarreal, director of general assistance at Wheeling Township said. “It’s really hard to fight that stereotype, but you can’t have people going without food, so we do what we can to bring the community together and it’s worked.”

Food insecurity has been on the rise in Wheeling Township, which includes parts of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights and Wheeling. Nearly 38,000 people in Wheeling Township were at risk of food insecurity between 2013 and 2017, meaning they may lack access, at times, to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy lifestyle, according to Food Depository estimates based on local income data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The number of people at risk of food insecurity increased 28 percent in Wheeling and 38 percent in Prospect Heights between 2005 and 2017.

After operating while under construction for four months, the pantry recently unveiled the expansion, which added more room for shopping space and more room for storage and preparation. Overall, the pantry added 21 shelves to provide a wider selection of foods and personal essentials.

The pantry also aims to provide as many non-food essentials as possible to free up guests’ money for rent and gas, particularly because items like diapers and laundry detergent are not eligible for purchase under SNAP benefits, Villarreal said.

In 2011, the pantry made the decision to shift to the client choice model. Under this model, guests select their own food items in a market-style distribution, rather than receiving a fixed selection of items. Since this change, the number of people visiting the pantry per month rose from 150 to 400 today. The township pantry also saw an increase in donations and soon ran out of storage space.

“It started to slowly creep up and we need to expand because of it,” Villarreal said.

A variety of organizations supported the renovation, including a local basketball team that helped move unsorted food from storage. A Food Depository grant helped fund the project.

Villarreal believes that Northwest suburban residents are what keeps the Wheeling Township Food Pantry running.

“It truly is a community effort,” said Villarreal. “We are very lucky we have a very supportive community.”