On an early, cold, Monday morning, before most of his fellow Chicagoans had woken up to start their week, Efrain Reyes was already hard at work.

He arrived at the Food Depository warehouse at 4:30 a.m. to get a lead on the long day ahead, filling his truck with thousands of pounds of fresh food.

“It’s a long process,” he said.

In all, Reyes had to make three trips to his destination: a food pantry in West Humboldt Park. In total, he delivered 54,000 pounds, much of which was the pantry’s special order of holiday food.

Efrain Reyes, a driver for the Food Depository, poses for a photo in the warehouse

Efrain Reyes, a driver for the Food Depository.

Produce – sweet and regular potatoes, greens, onions, eggs, milk, and much more – was the first truckload.

“Then the meat, then the dry foods,” he explained.

Efrain Reyes loads a pallet of hams onto his truck for delivery.

Efrain Reyes loads a pallet of hams onto his truck for delivery.

It’s a process that Reyes, 58, has been a part of for the last 14 holiday seasons as a Food Depository driver. Each November and December, special deliveries of traditional holiday items go out to hundreds of community partners. This is on top of the regular orders that go out to the Food Depository’s network nearly every day.

A photo of canned goods that are part of a Food Depository partner's special holiday order.

Each winter, community partners make special orders of holiday foods on top of their regular orders.

By the end of 2021, the Food Depository will have distributed more than 3.3 million pounds of hams, turkeys, holiday sides, and other staples for families in need. This year’s totals are the highest in recent memory – a 30% increase from last year’s holiday food distribution and a nearly 360% increase from 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a major rise in food insecurity rates.

Reyes’ delivery that morning was to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry, which serves hundreds of families each week on the city’s West Side. It was for the first of the pantry’s two December holiday food distributions.

Sister Stephanie Baliga moves a pallet of produce into the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry.

Sister Stephanie Baliga moves a pallet of produce into the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry.

Leading up to Christmas, guests are looking forward to picking up those special items for their family, like bone-in hams, pies and bags of potatoes, said Sister Stephanie Baliga.

Volunteers Stephanie Seacord and Israel Ramos stock the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels' pantry freezer with meat for its holiday food distribution

Volunteers Stephanie Seacord and Israel Ramos stock the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ pantry freezer with meat for its holiday food distribution.

“Everyone is extremely grateful for the quantity and quality of the food that we’re giving,” she said.

Between in-person and home deliveries, the mission’s holiday distribution served nearly 450 households.

volunteers pack a cart with groceries the mission of our lady of the angels holiday distribution

The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry hosted its first of two holiday distributions on December 14, serving nearly 450 households. (photos courtesy Sister Stephanie Baliga)

a cart of holiday food

Playing a role in feeding families is fulfilling for Reyes as well – not only during the holidays, but year-round. Growing up, Reyes was one of nine children. He and his family moved to the South Side from Mexico when he was 2 years old. He remembers what it’s like to need. But, more notably, he remembers being taught to be a helping hand to others.

That’s what keeps him coming back day after day, even now in a time of historic demand.

“This is like food for the soul,” he said.