At the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference and Lobby Day, Chicago area advocates bring their communities’ stories to Capitol Hill
When Mihriba Amin first arrived in the United States in 1996, she had to start a new life at age 29 in a land that was completely foreign to her.
As refugees from the Bosnian War, Amin, her husband and their young son sought safety and hoped for a better life. But they started with nothing.
“The first time the plane touched the ground, (they) said, ‘Welcome to O’Hare International Airport,’ I’m crying, my husband is crying and our 18-month-old son was like, ‘Why are you crying?’” recalled Amin, 52, who now runs a food pantry at the predominately Latino and low-income Lloyd Elementary School on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
In those early years, Amin and her family depended on food stamps and other forms of assistance until they got their financial bearings. As one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s advocates at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., Amin’s not forgetting where she came from or how that food assistance helped her family.
Amin oversees the school’s bi-monthly food pantry that serves about 300 families, in partnership with the Food Depository. Every other Friday, parents, most often mothers, turn to the pantry for food that will help sustain their families, Amin said.
“I see myself in them,” said Amin, who also works as the school’s business manager, among other roles.
Like other Food Depository advocates who traveled to Washington, D.C., Amin has enjoyed hearing perspectives and learning new approaches at the conference from advocates and experts from all over the U.S. She’s also eager to talk to legislators in Congress during the Lobby Day on Tuesday and to urge them to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Amin has experienced firsthand how food assistance can help propel a person from receiving help to giving it.
“You have to give to get back. You have to support those on the bottom,” said Amin, when asked what she hopes to tell lawmakers.
“If you don’t give them a lift and a push, they’ll have bigger needs than they do now,” Amin said.
Here are a few other stories from the Food Depository’s advocates:
Pearl Smith hopes to be a voice for those who visit the food pantry at Abounding Life Church in Posen, a south suburb of Chicago.
Smith, 52, was recently named coordinator of the pantry, though she’s served the church community in other ways for more than 20 years. In her day job, Smith works in administration at the Jessie Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“I really enjoy meeting the needs of the people and telling their stories. I’ve gained a new family. I have a food pantry family,” Smith said.
“Sometimes you’re tired, but you’re really not tired because you’re able to help someone else,” she said.
While in the nation’s capital, Smith said she hopes to learn and grow as an advocate. And she plans on asking legislators to consider increasing SNAP benefits for senior citizens, as many who turn to her pantry are struggling to make ends meet.
“If I can put my two cents in when I go to Capitol Hill, I’ll put it out there,” Smith said.
After retiring from a career in healthcare spanning four decades, Linda Dumas wasn’t quite ready to devote all her time to knitting.
She and her husband, John Dumas, founded the Share Food Share Love Food Pantry in suburban Brookfield in December 2015. Since then, the pantry has steadily grown and now serves about 200 families a month, a mix of working families, senior citizens and military veterans.
“We would love to be able to serve more clients,” said Dumas, 63.
“We know there’s more hunger out there,” she said. “We want to get the word out and reduce some of that stigma.”
When her husband led the charge in opening the pantry, which is part of the Food Depository’s vast network in Cook County, Dumas said she warned him that she’d help but wouldn’t be there all the time. She had, after all, just wrapped up a demanding career as a medical assistant and practice manager.
“And then as soon as we got started, I’m there all the time. It’s just such a rewarding experience – that feeling that you’re concretely helping someone,” Dumas said.
Dumas hopes to share some personal stories from her pantry with lawmakers on Tuesday, like that of the divorced mother of a teenage daughter who struggles to afford healthy food. Often, people are working but still can’t afford to buy food while also paying their bills, she said.
“Talking with legislators, I want them to understand that the people who need this help are just like you and I,” Dumas said. “Those people are just as important as you and I.”
John Cason manages logistics for the Community Feast soup kitchen, a longtime operation in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side that serves about 80 to 100 people every Sunday.
Cason works a full-time job at UPS, but every Sunday, he makes the drive from his home in Schaumburg to run the soup kitchen at the United Church of Rogers Park. He and his wife, Mary Sue, have three daughters, who are grown. This is how Cason spends his extra time.
“I get more out of it than I put in,” said Cason, 59. “I feel like I’m providing a need for a community that really exists.”
Cason, who is also treasurer of the Northside Anti-Hunger Network, was inspired by a recent lobbying trip to the state capital in Springfield. He hopes to continue to grow as an advocate while in Washington, D.C.
Cason also plans to share his own firsthand stories with members on Congress on Tuesday. He recalled once, after the soup kitchen had closed, a man showed up at Community Feast asking for food.
Not wanting to send him away empty-handed, Cason gave him a can of beef stew.
The man asked for a spoon and immediately began eating out of the can.
“If that’s the level of hunger that’s out there, that just scares me,” Cason said. “People shouldn’t be hungry.”