Story An Illinois Food Bank’s Move toward Online Ordering and Grocery Delivery Is Removing Barriers to Healthy Food Access
The My Pantry Express Program prioritizes client choice and dignity to reach more people facing food insecurity.
Olivia Fiol, Sofia Hinojosa, Julio Salas, Elaine Waxman, Emily Peiffer, Rhiannon Newman
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Easy online ordering. A variety of food choice. Pickup or delivery options. A hassle-free experience. People expect all of this when they order food from a local grocery store. But when someone needs food from a food pantry, they rarely have these options.

Northern Illinois Food Bank’s My Pantry Express (MPX) program is trying to change that. MPX leverages technology and flexible funding to improve autonomy and privacy by offering online ordering, delivery or limited-contact pickup, and food choice for residents facing food insecurity.

The MPX program is challenging the traditional model of food banking, which has historically involved making people stand in long lines to pick up their food boxes, requiring they provide personal information, and offering limited or no choice in what food is included in the boxes they receive if they can’t shop in person.

Two volunteers loading an order into the trunk of a car.

“Having choice is the most humanizing thing you can do in a food pantry, instead of giving somebody a box of food and saying, ‘I know what your family needs,’” said Courtney Oakes, senior program manager at the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB) and the manager of MPX. “We’re trying to erase that stigma that often comes with going to a food pantry by prioritizing dignity, equity, and convenience.”

Since launching MPX in 2019, NIFB has worked to scale the program to serve more residents throughout the region, especially as the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for charitable food and limited-contact pickup options. In just a few years, MPX has shown that when food banks invest in technological innovations and prioritize people’s choice and dignity, they can remove long-standing barriers people face in accessing the food they need to lead healthy lives and support their families.

Meeting people where they are to eliminate the stigma of charitable food

The food bank—which serves 13 urban, suburban, and semirural counties outside Chicago—developed the idea for MPX to address barriers preventing clients (or neighbors, as NIFB uses to emphasize the importance of a human-centered approach) from accessing the food they need. Many people, especially older adults and people with disabilities, find it difficult or impossible to stand in a long line and carry food back home. Others might not have time to visit a food bank because they’re juggling parenting and work, or they might feel embarrassed to need help at all.

To better serve those neighbors, MPX focuses on online ordering, limited-contact pickup, and anonymity for people using the program. With the support of a Walmart Foundation grant to help start up the program, NIFB created an easy-to-use website (in both English and Spanish) where people can select from a variety of food options and place their orders, or they can call for help ordering.

Neighbors can then choose a pickup time and location that is convenient for them, and they receive a confirmation email. Then, on their pickup day, they are sent a text message reminder two hours ahead of time. When they go to the pickup sites—often in parking lots outside stores—volunteers and staff load their orders into their vehicles without neighbors needing to leave their cars.

A volunteer leaning into a car to check in on a participant.

“We want to meet our neighbors where they’re at,” Oakes said. “We try to get them to go to places that are normalizing, such as a Walmart parking lot, where they’re picking up their groceries anyway, or a Goodwill, where they can shop.”

A year after MPX launched, COVID-19 started spreading in the US, which led to surging demand for the food bank’s services, especially for the limited-contact and more flexible services that MPX offered.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impacts led to families facing reduced incomes and tighter budgets. Combined with higher food prices amid rising inflation and supply chain challenges, that meant more families were pushed into food insecurity. During the first year of the pandemic, adults’ use of charitable food rose nearly 50 percent, with 13 million more adults accessing charitable food in December 2020 than a year earlier. And while federal pandemic response policies boosting safety net programs contributed to a decline in food insecurity in 2020 and 2021 compared with 2019, food insecurity rates rose sharply in 2022 as inflation climbed, food prices spiked, and many of these additional supports ended (expanded food assistance supports expired in early 2023).

Many families who need support accessing food don’t qualify for other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because of income or other eligibility restrictions. But the MPX program’s low barriers to entry allow northern Illinois residents to supplement the rest of their grocery shopping and ensure their families have what they need for a full and nutritious diet.

A grocery cart loaded with milk, chicken strips, sausage, and a melon. Sealed food packages marked with participants’ names.
A cart is loaded with milk, produce, meat, and other foods, which My Pantry Express volunteers then pack into participants’ food boxes.

“We do not have food stamps. The [agency] shared that my husband’s income is too high for the number of people in our household,” one MPX participant said. “With WIC, I am able to buy milk, which is currently very essential. But now that [my baby] is eating, if it wasn’t for the food pantry, this would not have been solved. She eats her three meals a day and bottles of milk.”

The pandemic also created challenges for the MPX program. Amid food system supply chain issues, manufacturer donations to the food bank declined. At the same time, fewer volunteers were willing to come in person when people knew less about how COVID-19 spread or how to stay safe from contracting the virus. As a result, NIFB couldn’t offer the same level of choice to neighbors as it did when MPX launched, and the number of neighbors using MPX started to fall.

But over time, the supply chain improved, increased donations helped the food bank meet the higher demand for assistance, and volunteers felt more comfortable returning to the warehouse to help pack orders. This meant NIFB could devote funds to purchasing the variety of food it needed for MPX to expand choice again, and it could offer options not only for what types of food neighbors could order but also for how they received their food.

Through a partnership with DoorDash established in 2021, NIFB now offers a free delivery option for neighbors living fewer than 15 miles from four distribution sites. Besides entering an address and phone number for use by the delivery driver, choosing the delivery option doesn’t require that people provide any additional information beyond the limited info MPX asks for—name, zip code, and email address.

The pickup area and directional signs for DoorDash deliveries. Two volunteers loading a grocery order into a car.
A sign directs DoorDash drivers to the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s warehouse, where a volunteer loads grocery orders into a car.

Delivering food directly to people’s homes removes the barriers of transportation access, time commitment, stigma, and caregiving demands. A new mother who participated in the program said, “I delivered my daughter in mid-COVID. It was difficult to access food, but MPX had the option to deliver the food at my home.... Those weeks when we were in helped me tremendously during that period.”

Demand for delivery has climbed since MPX started offering that option, and NIFB hopes to expand delivery options to more neighbors and improve the reliability and consistency of delivery going forward. Overall, both the limited-contact pickup and delivery options ensure people can receive food they need just as if they bought it through a grocery store—with the autonomy to choose what’s best for them.

Prioritizing choice and dignity to better meet neighbors’ needs

Since MPX started in 2019, it has provided 5.8 million meals to residents, and neighbors placed 56,000 orders in fiscal year 2022. After word of mouth, flyers, and advertisements initially spread the message about the program, MPX has built trust with neighbors by developing a reputation for being reliable, consistent, and compassionate. One Arabic-speaking neighbor was so enthusiastic about the program, she created a TikTok video to encourage others in her community to use MPX.

MPX respected neighbors’ privacy not only in delivery and pickup but also by limiting the personal information they have to share, reducing some of the stigma that people may experience in accessing charitable food. Because NIFB funded the MPX program through private donations and non–federal government funding rather than federal funding, it can ask for minimal personal information and require only that neighbors self-attest that they need food assistance.

This aspect of the MPX program differs from many charitable food programs that rely on federal funding through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Unlike MPX, before the pandemic, TEFAP required that people have incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible. For some people, their SNAP benefits aren’t enough to cover the cost of food in their area, especially after the recent decrease in SNAP benefit amounts; for others, they may earn above income limits for federal food assistance but face high housing costs and medical or other expenses that force them to have to choose between paying rent on time or buying food for the month. 

“It's based on how they see food insecurity. It's their own personal situation, and they are the ones to decide if this program is for them or not,” Oakes said. “We ask for the bare minimum we need to report what we need to and to track success with the program. We're focusing on the orders, on the pounds of food, to translate that into meals.”

Two women stand side by side for a portrait.

People participating in the program said it has allowed them to avoid the cost-cutting measures they had to previously use without MPX. Such strategies included reducing the number of meals they eat in a day or primarily relying on cheaper but less nutrient-dense food options.

Many people participating in MPX continue to strategize on ways to get the best bang for their buck—collecting coupons, comparing prices between different stores, and tracking sales. Some neighbors have suggested that MPX could improve by offering more meat options and baby foods, fixing glitches on the website, extending hours for available pickup times, and providing recipes along with the food boxes. But they also emphasized that the program consistently helps them fill in gaps and ensures they have the more expensive staple pantry items they need.

“There was a season where there weren’t many streams of income in my household. That meant there wasn’t many opportunities for us to buy food,” one neighbor said. “[With] the food that the pantry provides plus certain foods that I buy to complete my essentials, I have saved so much money that is being used to pay rent, electricity, and all those things. And in this case, also for my baby.”

Building capacity to reach more communities facing food insecurity

Growing demand for MPX has meant that NIFB is nearing capacity limits to accommodate everyone who wants to order from the program. Looking ahead, NIFB is working to increase the number of orders it can take in the areas it already serves, and, with funding from a private foundation, it is planning to scale the MPX program with the help of key partner agencies.

The organization is collaborating with local agencies and donors to provide the program in new locations, expanding MPX to additional communities facing food insecurity. By bolstering its partnerships with local agencies and helping those partners manage MPX orders directly, NIFB will be able to increase its capacity to serve more neighbors, reach more communities, and include more fresh produce in its food options.

“We’re trying to take the food that we have to the neighborhoods we're not in yet. We really try to establish sites outside of places we already are,” Oakes said. “We’re looking at how can we break into these neighborhoods and these communities and offer My Pantry Express there as well.”

Volunteers pack My Pantry Express orders in the Northern Illinois Food Bank warehouse.

The MPX program’s impacts—especially amid rising food insecurity as COVID-19 pandemic aid has wound down and high food prices have continued—demonstrate the significant benefits of charitable food programs for people who need assistance but can’t access it. Investing in technologies that allow for easy ordering and communication has allowed NIFB to open up a new world of online ordering and participant choice for food and delivery or pickup options.

One of the program’s original goals was to ask for very basic information from neighbors without requiring proof that people need assistance—a key element of the program that removes stigma and ensures everyone facing food insecurity can receive the help they need. But other food banks might not have the same level of resources as NIFB and need to rely on federal funding and its strict requirements, which limits their ability to make these types of improvements.

One person explained that MPX’s focus on dignity and choice is what keeps them engaged with the program. “I don’t feel put down coming here. I don’t feel any less than the people working in the program. And that is a huge reason why I come back,” they said. “It’s donated and it’s free, and it evens the playing field. The variety of stuff that is accessible is amazing in my eyes. It doesn’t feel like charity. It’s ‘You need help. I am going to help you.’ And that’s the way it should be.”


This story is part of a healthy food access project funded by the Walmart Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Walmart Foundation or the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.

We would like to thank Hester Bury and other NIFB staff who shared their learnings with us, as well as the neighbors who spent time sharing their stories.

RESEARCH Olivia Fiol, Sofia Hinojosa, Julio Salas, and Elaine Waxman

DESIGN Rhiannon Newman

EDITING Alex Dallman

PHOTOGRAPHY Taylor Emrey Glascock (


WRITING Emily Peiffer

See our project page to learn more about innovative healthy food access projects happening across the US.

Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Food deserts and food supply Food insecurity and hunger Hunger and food assistance
Policy Centers Health Policy Center Income and Benefits Policy Center Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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