ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — The Rock River Valley Pantry says food insecurity is a growing problem for many people in the Rockford-area, and they’ve said they’ve made changes in the pandemic era to keep their those they serve safe.

Sue Cooling has been a Rock River Valley Pantry volunteer for nearly two years.

“It’s a way of giving back everything that I’ve gotten,” she said. “I had a friend who was also recently retired, and she had volunteered down here. And so, she’s the one that suggested coming down here, and it’s been great.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the subsequent social distancing measures changed the way the pantry did business, since the need for food never went away.

“The past year has been one of tremendous support,” said executive director Kim Adams-Bakke. “We have received food from every agency, from every school, from every church, from every service organization, from people just coming in the door, knowing that people in this community needed food.”

Pantry staff and volunteers say they were forced to adapt.

“The first thing we had to do was try to protect everybody that came into the building. Most of our volunteers are an older population and they’re crucial to our success,” Adams-Bakke said.

More than 11,000 people were served by the pantry, located at 421 South Rockton Avenue, from July 2020 through June 2021.

On average, 10-18% of those said they never needed the pantry’s help before.

Nearly 30% of those are children.

“We’ve always been able to meet the need,” Adams-Bakke said. “After 45, almost 46 years, we can plan. We know what we’re doing. But, what we did see was, when the retailers had to cut back, when manufacturers were reducing what they were able to provide to the local grocers, we did feel that impact. There were days that the local grocers didn’t have as much to donate, but we still made it work.”

Adams-Bakke said grocers are vital to the pantry’s mission by providing food that is still good to eat, even though it may be a day or two past it’s “sell by” date.

“They can still donate that type of food, and within 12 to 24 hours, we’ve moved that food out of our distribution and into the client’s food bags,” she said.

Pantry clients also have fresh food options from the pantry’s on-site garden.

“It’s difficult,” Adams-Bakke said. “You never think you’re going to be that person who asks for help, who needs help to feed their family, or an older adult who’s never in their life asked for assistance. That’s a very difficult thing.”

The Rock River Valley Pantry will start a new fundraising campaign in the next few weeks, called “Breakfast 815.”