Friday, August 30, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Rescuing food, families

The clients who come to the St. Columbanus Church Food Pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency, call her “Dee Dee,” but her full name is Marguarite Smith. She is a volunteer and client who greets everyone at the pantry with a jovial smile and a hug. She’s always focused on making everyone in line feel comfortable and welcomed, because she knows times are tough.

“Some of the people that come here can’t even afford lettuce to make a salad,” she said. “So the vegetables and other food we get here are great.”

Marguarite has been volunteering at the pantry for eight years, ever since she had to go on disability soon after her husband also became disabled. Unable to work, the couple struggles to eat on less than $300 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and food from the pantry.

“Everyone that comes here is just so happy to get meat and chicken,” she said. “I get so many calls from people saying they can cook so much more because of what we receive here.”

St. Columbanus is able to serve approximately 500 clients per week because of Food Depository support, including thousands of pounds of food distributed to the agency every month, grants, and technical assistance.

 Part of the food the pantry receives is from the Food Depository’s Food Rescue program.

“With the Food Rescue program, we can give clients another source of protein,” said pantry coordinator LaVerne Morris. “It truly makes a difference.”

Food Rescue provides Food Depository member agencies with quality meat, dairy products, and produce recovered from grocery stores that would otherwise have been discarded. St. Columbanus joined the program in 2009.

“The pantry used to give us just canned goods, but now everyone’s happy to get the meat,” Marguarite said.

In fiscal year 2012-2013, the Food Depository’s Food Rescue program distributed 10.2 million pounds of food – an increase of more than one million pounds from the previous year.

Friday, August 23, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'Working with desperate people'

Maureen Ryan chooses a bag of vegetables at the Union Ave. UMC Church food pantry.
Maureen Ryan used to have a steady, secure job in accounting and credit collecting.

“I was the best credit collector in the City of Chicago,” she laughed.

That was about 10 years ago. After losing the job, Maureen hasn’t been able to find consistent work. She now works odd jobs and cleans houses to make ends meet. Between her part-time income and $126 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, she doesn’t make enough to support her disabled husband and two teenage daughters.

“They don’t give enough for food stamps. It’s just not enough,” she said.

To fill in the gaps, Maureen and her husband get fruit, vegetables, meat, bread, and canned goods at the Union Avenue UMC Church food pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository agency in the South Side neighborhood of Canaryville.

“Since my husband has been disabled, the doctors want him to eat better, so I get my vegetables here, because they’re just too expensive otherwise.”

Maureen and her husband have been coming to the pantry for a year.

“It’s tough to scrounge up money to buy food these days,” Maureen said. “That’s why this is such a blessing for us.”

Every month, the pantry serves more than 400 individuals, and the Ryans’ story is all too familiar to pantry coordinator Ray Carey.

“We’re working with desperate people now,” he said. “People have lost their jobs and are struggling through no fault of their own. That story needs to be told.”

Join the Greater Chicago Food Depository in the fight against hunger in Cook County. Donate or volunteer and make a difference for the 1 in 6 of our neighbors who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Friday, August 16, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'We just didn't have any food'

Steve Polzak relies on the Greater Chicago Food Depository Mobile Pantry in Sauk Village for fruit, vegetables and shelf-stable goods.
Steve Polzak, 58, grasped the handle of a rolling cooler with one hand, and his cane in the other. It was a radiant, clear afternoon in South Suburban Sauk Village, and Steve was visiting a Greater Chicago Food Depository Mobile Pantry at Emmanuel Church.

Steve was receiving fresh carrots, potatoes, onions, collard greens and bread at the distribution. He and his wife go to the Mobile Pantry every few months, since times got tough.

“I didn’t have any breakfast today because we just didn’t have any food,” Steve said. “This helps tremendously.”

Steve got into a car accident about 10 years ago and severely injured his back. He had to go on permanent disability and was no longer able to work in his job at a warehouse. Since the accident, paying for related medical issues has drained his family’s savings account. 

Steve’s wife was also laid off from her job in information technology three years ago, and has since gone on disability. Swamped by mortgage payments and medical bills, the couple has trouble affording food.

“The only thing I’ve eaten recently was a scrambled egg sandwich,” Steve said. “That’s holding up right now pretty well but if it weren’t for this I’m not sure what we’d be doing.”

Steve is relying heavily on the Mobile Pantry this month because he is in the process of renewing his SNAP benefits and is out of funds on his family’s Link card.

“There’s literally nothing in our pantry right now,” Steve said. “Now that we have this food, we’ll be able to pull something together for dinner tonight and for the rest of the week.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Food Depository AmeriCorps member sees partnership's impact

Lakeshia Hawkins (front row, far right) with other Food Depository AmeriCorps members.
Since 2009, the Greater Chicago Food Depository has been hosting AmeriCorps members through the AmeriCorps State/National Program. The individuals are placed at the Food Depository or in member agencies and are utilized to assist with day-to-day pantry operations, community volunteer recruitment and retention, fundraising and nutrition and health education. The following post is an update from AmeriCorps member Lakeshia Hawkins, who is currently serving at Marillac House Food Pantry on the West Side:

I am completing my first AmeriCorps service year as a volunteer coordinator at Marillac House Food Pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository agency that serves the Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Austin communities. Marillac provides a critical service in the community, which has a poverty rate in some areas of more than 40 percent.

During my service year, I’ve seen the need continue to increase in the area, and I’ve also seen the immense impact the Food Depository and Marillac House are making every day. When I started one year ago, the pantry was serving about 70 people per distribution. Now, we see about 150 clients three times a week. In order to address this need, with the Food Depository’s help, we distributed nearly 595,000 pounds of food last year.

On a daily basis I manage approximately 15 volunteers and provide job placement assistance, housing, and food resource information to residents of the community. The volunteers at Marillac are a vital part of ending hunger on the West Side, and in my AmeriCorps year I developed a volunteer pamphlet that gives a brief history of Marillac and describes what potential volunteers would be doing at the pantry.

My AmeriCorps service at Marillac has been a transformative experience. Before joining AmeriCorps, I was working at the food pantry in order to meet the requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, so that I could support my two children. Since joining the Food Depository’s AmeriCorps program, I have gained marketable job skills and have improved my time management and communication skills. I’ve also earned an education award and am now a student at Harold Washington College. I intend to complete my Bachelor’s Degree in business administration within the next two years.

Every day, I see our clients’ smiling faces after they receive food and I know the Food Depository and Marillac have made a tangible difference in their lives. For at least one day, they don’t have to worry about finding their next meal. Because of these programs, the community becomes stronger every day and the quality of life improves. Similarly, the AmeriCorps experience has left an unmistakable mark on my life. I have found purpose and focus. After earning my degree, I plan to open my own food pantry. Thanks to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and AmeriCorps, I have been given the tools to succeed and the means to provide myself and my children with a brighter future.

For more information about the Food Depository's programs and how you can get involved, visit

Friday, August 9, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Sharing with others

From left to right, Guillermo, Sophia, and Cecillya have been volunteering at the St. Ignatius Church food pantry all summer.
Since Elena lost her job five years ago, she has been focused on feeding her children. And her children have been focused on feeding others.

It’s Wednesday, and three of Elena’s children – 13-year-old Guillermo, 12-year-old Cecillya and 10-year-old Sophia – are unloading boxes of food at the St. Ignatius Church food pantry, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency in Rogers Park.

The three kids move in unison, as Cecillya unloads a box full of fresh pears from the truck and quickly hands it off to Guillermo. “Pears coming down!” He says, before sliding the box down a conveyor belt into the waiting hands of Sophia, who moves the box to a shelf.

Guillermo has been volunteering at the pantry for two years, while his sisters started this summer. Their motivation for helping out is simple.

“Sharing with other people is better than keeping everything to yourself,” says 10-year-old Sophia, who also organized a food drive at her school two years ago.

Elena teaches her children the value of sharing with others, because she’s familiar with the positive impact kindness can have. She fell on hard times about five years ago when she was laid off from her job at a vehicle repair shop. Before that, she worked 10 years in retail as a store manager. Now, she feeds her family with the help of the food pantry and the $520 per month she gets in SNAP benefits.

“The kids like fruits and vegetables, but they’re so expensive,” Elena says. “Food prices keep going up. Even milk is expensive, and with the cereal the kids eat, we go through milk in just a few days.”

Elena works about 15 hours per week, making $8.75 an hour. Her income barely takes care of the necessities, which is why she turns to the pantry for fruit, vegetables and shelf-stable food for her children.

“The pantry helps feed my children. It helps keep my kids’ stomachs full,” she says. “I try to make things stretch to the best of my abilities and work from there.”

In a few weeks, the children will go back to school. They will be missed at the pantry, but there’s no doubt they will be back next summer.

“Without them, the unloading process would take twice as long,” says pantry coordinator Kathy Morris. “They’re good kids. They make the summer bright.”

Friday, August 2, 2013

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'This keeps my kids from going hungry'

Jacqueline Dunkentell (right) and her daughter, Jada, wait in line at the Fraternite Notre Dame food pantry.
In the food pantry line at Fraternite Notre Dame in the Austin neighborhood, 7-year-old Jada Dunkentell just wanted to practice her gymnastics.

“Do you want to see me do a cartwheel into the splits?” she asked the crowd waiting for boxes of food.

Without waiting for an answer, she bounced down the sidewalk, flipped over, and landed in a patch of grass. She quickly exclaimed, “See! I did it!”

“You did great,” said Jada’s mother, 44-year-old Jacqueline Dunkentell, who stood nearby in the line. Jacqueline injured her back about a year ago and has not been able to work since. She struggles to afford food and comes to Fraternite Notre Dame, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency, once a week.

“This has helped me make ends meet and this keeps my kids from going hungry,” she said.

Jacqueline previously worked as a nursing assistant and security guard. She receives $200 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and she gets shelf-stable food, meat, fruit and vegetables from the food pantry.

“When I lost my job we weren’t able to buy all the meat we needed, but this has helped immensely,” she said.

The pantry is open on Wednesdays from 3-5 p.m., but pantry coordinator Sister Marie Virginia expects to stay past 8 p.m., until everyone is served.

“The need is just so great in this community,” she said. “We serve about 350 individuals per week and it’s just always busy.”

Aside from the food pantry, members of Fraternite Notre Dame, which is a Catholic Order, also run a soup kitchen.

Thanks to the food pantry, while Jacqueline rehabs her back and looks for jobs, she knows she’ll be able to provide enough food for Jada and her other two children.

“This place, these people have been a blessing,” she said. “I’m not sure where we’d be without it.”