Hungry holidays for the poor?

  • Written by Bob Rakow

Area pantries feeling crunch as more ‘desperate’ people seek food

  A crowd of people gathered on ap1-3-col-colorHerb Mohn of Palos Heights unwraps some canned goods recently at Elsie Pantry, a joint ministry of Moraine Valley Community Church and Savior Divine Lutheran Church. Photo by Bob Rakow. recent Thursday afternoon outside the back entrance of Savior Divine Lutheran Church in Palos Hills waiting for Elsie’s Pantry to open.

  Inside, a team of volunteers hurriedly placed donated food—bread, bags of salad, frozen meat and dairy products—on tables, while others filled boxes with canned and dry goods stored on rows of metal shelves.
  The food pantry wasn’t forced to turn anyone away, but director Beth Heinrich is concerned about the future.
  “Right now, my shelves are bare,” Heinrich said. “We broke a record last month. The canned goods are really low.”
  Heinrich is not alone. As the holiday season approaches, food pantries throughout the region are working harder than ever to meet the needs of a growing client base and looking to donations to fill the void.
  Elsie’s Pantry, a joint ministry of Savior Divine Lutheran Church and Moraine Valley Church, served nearly 600 clients in October, a significant jump from the 350 to 400 individuals who are typically helped on a monthly basis, Heinrich said.
  The pantry receives some of its supplies from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes donated and purchased food to a network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters throughout Cook County. But Elsie’s also relies on private donations and monetary contributions to serve clients.
jump-3-colBob Shields of Palos Park removes a case of food from the shelves at Elsie’s Pantry in Palos Hills. The pantry relies on food and monetary contributions to serve needy families throughout the area. Photo by Bob Rakow.  Moments before the pantry opens, volunteers form a circle, join hands and pray for the people they serve as well as the success of their mission. When the doors open, clients take their seats and wait patiently until their numbers are called. Some are regulars who make small talk with volunteers and other clients. Newcomers, meanwhile, check in at the front desk and present identification to prove they live in one of the communities served by the pantry.
  The pantry, located at 10040 S. 88th Ave., is open from 3 to 5 p.m. on Thursdays and serves nearly 41,000 residents from Palos Hills, Palos Heights, Palos Park, Hickory Hills, Willow Springs and Orland Park.
  In addition to helping meet nutritional needs, the pantry offers blood pressure screenings on the first Thursday of the month and nutrition workshops from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on the fourth Thursday. A pet pantry provides food for clients’ dogs and cats.
  Donations can be dropped off between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The pantry is always in need of canned goods, cereal and pasta, Heinrich said.
  Elsie’s Pantry is not the only one in the southwest suburbs fighting to meet the basic nutritional needs of a growing number people who need some help making ends meet.
  “We get a lot of new clients,” said Sue Coffey, secretary at Worth United Methodist Church, which operates a food pantry. “They are having a hard time.”
  Like Elsie’s Pantry, Worth United Methodist Church looks to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and private donations to keep the shelves stocked. The pantry also counts on food drives sponsored by schools and local organizations as well as contributions from its congregation.
  The pantry, 7100 W. 112th St., is open from 9 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. Clients can visit twice a month and receive a selection of meat, canned and dry goods as well as dairy products, including milk, butter, yogurt and cheese.
  Donations can be made when the pantry is open. Organizations with large amounts of food can contract the church at 708-448-6682 to arrange a pick up. The pantry is always in need of non-perishable items such as cereal, macaroni and cheese, pasta, instant potatoes, ramen noodle packages, soup (dried or canned), cake mixes and vegetables.
  The pantry serves a wide area bounded by 79th and 135th streets, Cicero Avenue and LaGrange Road. It will provide food to people who live outside that area on a one-time basis, Coffey said.
  “People are desperate,” Coffey said, adding that unemployment and a recent decrease in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are two of the primary reasons why more people are turning to food pantries for help.
  “There are people who are homeless who come in,” she said. “We try to do what we can.”
  Teresa Rodriguez, southwest regional director for Catholic Charities, said food panties have become more important than ever as the need increases and smaller pantries close their doors.
  “(Clients) are really stretching every single dollar,” she said. “There’s always a need. “We are talking about basic items.”
  Catholic Charities, which has an office in Worth, operates a food pantry at St. Blasé Church in Summit, which serves surrounding communities. The church also provides a hot meal at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays.
  The pantry has seen the number of families served jump from 650 to more than 1,000 over the past few months, Rodriguez said.
  “It’s frightening,” she said. They’re the working poor.”
  Unemployment, a decrease in work hours or a family illness often lead people who’ve never before visited a food pantry to take advantage of their services.
  “They’ll say, ‘I never envisioned myself in a food pantry,’” Rodriguez said.

  She added that clients are extremely thankful for whatever the pantry can provide.
  “Ninety-nine percent will take what they need,” she said. “They feel welcome. They’re made to feel important.”

  The pantry is open Mondays, Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 1 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. It provides one package per month that includes canned goods, dried goods and frozen meat. In addition, clients can come to the pantry each day it is open for food that is donated by local grocers, restaurants and bakeries.