As the world settles into our new normal of social distancing, it’s easy to start feeling isolated – both physically and emotionally – from our family, friends and community.

But within the walls of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a familiar scene still exists: People from all walks of life working as one to help those in need – and having a good time doing it.

That’s not to say the scene in the warehouse hasn’t changed in recent weeks. The typical clusters of volunteers repacking bulk orders of rice, pasta or fresh produce have been replaced with spread-out assembly lines for preparing boxes of food. These boxes carrying 20-30 pounds of shelf-stable items will be distributed to families across Cook County facing the economic impact of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, and businesses and schools remain closed, the Food Depository is bracing for a drastic increase in need for food assistance. To meet that growing need, volunteers are urgently needed.

Under the state’s shelter-in-place order, volunteering is considered an essential service, so community members who are healthy and able can still serve those currently struggling to put food on the table. To keep everyone safe, the staff has implemented extra precautions including limiting the number of volunteers per session, recommending volunteers be between the ages of 18-60, maintaining social distancing, and increased cleaning and sanitizing of our facility.

Volunteers pack boxes of shelf-stable food in the Greater Chicago Food Depository warehouse

Volunteers pack boxes of shelf-stable food

Though the food box project is a new one, staff and volunteers are already operating like a well-oiled machine. During a recent morning session, with upbeat playlists ranging from ‘80s pop to Motown hits serving as background music, the boxes were pushed down the line to volunteers standing in their own separate stations. They quickly filled them up with canned fruits and vegetables, soup, peanut butter, pasta, rice, and other staples.

And the six-foot radius between everyone wasn’t enough to dampen any spirits. Through air-high-fives, smiles, and lighthearted conversation, the powerful sense of camaraderie seemed to alleviate some of the fears and uncertainties that exist right outside our doors – even if just for a few hours.

‘The work is invaluable’

“This seemed like the only worthy reason to leave my house,” Caroline Boneham said between taping boxes shut and stacking them onto wooden pallets. Boneham, a 32-year-old consultant from Old Town, is new to volunteering at the Food Depository. But as the local impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak began to rise, she wanted to give back. Boneham felt it was the least she could do, especially because she has several friends working in the medical field fighting this crisis on the front lines.

For the last few weeks, Boneham has come to pack boxes nearly every day, often staying for both the morning and afternoon shifts when there’s room available.

Caroline Boneham poses for a photo next to food boxes in the Greater Chicago Food Depository warehouse

Caroline Boneham started signing up for volunteer sessions as a way to help those affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Though it started as a way for her to not sit idly at home and directly help those affected, the experience has opened Boneham’s eyes to how many of her neighbors are regularly dealing with food insecurity. She expects to continue the “invaluable” work of helping those facing hunger even after the worst of the pandemic is over.

“It’s just made me more aware of how many people are applying themselves all the time to the greater good in Chicago,” she said. “I know how much I’ve seen that and how much it moves me, and I hope it’s something that everyone takes away.”

‘We all need each other’

On this particular morning, the group of nearly 50 volunteers received a surprise visit from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who thanked them for their hard work during these tough times. As she walked through the warehouse, the mayor stopped to write a simple, yet uplifting message on some of the boxes going out to local families: “God Bless You.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot signs food boxes to be sent to families across Cook County

A box signed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the Greater Chicago Food Depository warehouse that states: 'God bless you'

“What we need every single day is for people like you to step up and rise to the occasion and be there for each other,” she said to the volunteers during their orientation. “In this time, we need to rely on our sense of community and demonstrate it in everything that we do.”

It’s that increased sense of community that Andrew Weithe, 36, hopes will be a positive outcome from these difficult times. Weithe, who has been a regular volunteer at Wednesday night repacks for the last four years, knew that COVID-19 would put even more of his community at risk of hunger – and he felt an “intrinsic need” to be a part of the solution.

Andrew Weithe, a regular volunteer at the Food Depository, poses for a photo while volunteering in the warehouse

Andrew Weithe, a regular volunteer at the Food Depository, has been in every morning packing boxes for those dealing with the economic impacts of COVID-19.

A manager for an online culinary bookstore and events company, he’s been able to work half days in order to spend every morning at the Food Depository making boxes.

“No matter who you are, where you’re stationed in life, we all need each other somehow,” Weithe said. “For me, being here is trying to be a part of that effort of building that increased community mindset and increased awareness that we all need each other all the time. And even if it feels like we don’t, you might be one catastrophic event away from needing help in a way you never anticipated.”

Learn more about the Food Depository’s COVID-19 response, or sign up for a volunteer session