Mom holding her daughter standing outside of their front door in the sunlight

Rethinking the Food Bank

Northern Illinois Food Bank

A crucial resource reconsiders everything to design more dignity into its digital tools.

Even before the pandemic, some 10 percent of American households experienced food insecurity. Food banks exist to meet that need, but simple barriers like being unaware that the service exists, not knowing hours of operation, or having a way to get there keep many people from accessing a service intended to help them. Even when those barriers are cleared, there’s a social stigma associated with support services. During the pandemic, IDEO and Northern Illinois Food Bank joined together to reassess everything from central strategies to digital interfaces to access, with neighbors co-designing at every step. With the COVID crisis creating more demand than ever, we turned to those best equipped to redesign the Food Bank—those who need it most.


1.9 million meals

distributed through My Pantry Express in 2021

50% increase

in distribution from prior year
Workers in a food bank with a big banner overhead that reads 'Giving matters'
Woman in front of the Food Bank sign

An estimated 1 in 8 Americans experience food insecurity.

The food insecurity rate is 2-3x higher for persons of color than for white households.

60% of food insecure households do not use food pantries.

Almost 15% of food insecure households in 2020 contained children under 18.

In Northern Illinois Food Bank's service area 350,000 neighbors are food insecure.

Giving food assistance is about more than handing over a box of groceries. It’s about allowing people to make their own choices.

But the pandemic only narrowed people’s choices. Undeterred, Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB) put people’s needs above everything else, leading to innovations that could improve food banks everywhere. IDEO recruited neighbors to co-design a new digital tool intended to improve people’s access to food. Local residents provided more than insights—they steered design decisions and helped transform the relationship between NIFB and the community.

Man pulling two shopping carts full of food through a parking lot at a food bank

Northern Illinois Food Bank’s My Pantry Express app allows people to browse and order groceries online and to choose a pickup time and location that works for their schedule. We designed the app to provide useful information on dietary preferences and to be inclusive of cultural differences. The result allows choice and flexibility, helps prevent food waste, and preserves the dignity of shoppers throughout the process by making My Pantry Express feel like any other grocery site.

Ultimately, Northern Illinois Food Bank and IDEO’s strategy for success relied on new metrics. In addition to measuring effectiveness in pounds of food distributed, we found new ways to measure shoppers’ satisfaction—a solution that works better for all parties involved because it was designed by all parties involved.

Screenshots of the Food Bank mobile app
“One of the things I’m really happy about is the ability to make choices about what kind of food we’re bringing home. It gives us a certain amount of dignity in choosing our own diet, and we don’t waste food that somebody else could use.”
My Pantry Express shopper

My Pantry Express shopper

Thriving communitiesWoman wearing a surgical mask handing out food at the Food Bank
Food Bank mobile app

Thank you

Thank you to all the Neighbors Northern Illinois Food Bank serves and especially those who designed the program along with Northern Illinois Food Bank and IDEO.

The Feeding America Network and Northern Illinois Food Bank Agency Partners.

Program Partners:

  • Walmart
  • Northern Illinois University
  • Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital
  • Goodwill
  • Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center

Continual support to Northern Illinois Food Bank for this work comes from:

  • SWIM
  • DoorDash
  • YouTech
  • Walmart Foundation
  • Urban Institute

Finally, thank you to Julie Yurko, CEO and President of Northern Illinois Food Bank; Jennifer Lamplough, Director of Impact; and Weija Chang, Service Designer and Innovation lead, for your vision and partnership over the past two years.

Photographs by Taylor Glasscock. Video by Dave Yim and Sam Paakkonen.

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