Celebrating 40 Years

Appears in the June 2024 issue.

From a humble closet to a regional hub, Loaves & Fishes Community Services has grown exponentially

The early days of Loaves & Fishes Community Services’ food pantry
The early days of Loaves & Fishes Community Services’ food pantry

Loaves & Fishes Community Services can trace its beginnings to a group of St. Raphael Catholic Church parishioners who started a small food pantry in a closet. That year they helped eight families in need. Seven years later, 18 area churches and civic groups came together to organize the pantry into an official not-for-profit.

By the year 2000, Loaves & Fishes was helping about 200 people each week. Today, it serves between 8,000 and 9,000 people every week and has become the largest food pantry in the state of Illinois. “The need in our community has increased substantially over the last couple of decades mostly due to population growth and changes in demographics,” explains Mike Havala, president and CEO. “There are 2.3 million people in the four counties we serve (DuPage, Will, Kane, and Kendall); we know that about one in five of them are living at a low-income or poverty level. And because they are earning substantially less than the cost of living, it’s very likely that they are food insecure.”

Havala credits innovation and community support for the nonprofit’s ability to keep up with demand. “There have been a lot of great people associated with our organization over the years,” he says. “I’ve witnessed an amazing willingness to step up once people understand how great the need is in our community. In fact, over the last 13 years our volunteers have logged over 1.1 million hours onsite.”

But there’s potential for growth.

Its 17,000-square-foot market now
Its 17,000-square-foot market now

“It’s always been a part of our DNA to have a constant focus on what we can do better,” Havala says. That includes making sure people have easier access to what they need. Clients can shop for healthy food at the 17,000-square-foot Naperville market (1871 High Grove Ln.) or use the online ordering system—similar to what grocery chains offer—and pick up prepack groceries curbside at the 30,000-square-foot Aurora distribution hub (580 Exchange Ct.). Food distribution also is available every Wednesday at its Bolingbrook location (151 E. Briarcliff Rd.).

Donating to the organization has become easier and more efficient as well. In addition to traditional food collections, people can contribute funds online to its virtual food drive (“You click. Families eat.”), which has the added benefit of being able to take advantage of the nonprofit’s purchasing power (using multiple sources to procure food to stretch those dollars and maximize a donation’s impact).

Over the last four decades, Loaves & Fishes also has evolved beyond canned food. It now provides fresh items alongside shelf-stable essentials. It’s also expanded into offering mental health resources and financial education. “A big part of our focus is on our clients’ overall health and self-sufficiency,” Havala says. “If somebody has physical, mental, and financial health, then they have a great foundation to move forward with and grow on.” For more information, visit loaves-fishes.org.


Photos: Loaves & Fishes Community Services