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Baby spinach leaves with water droplets.
Hunger Beat

At Uptown food pantry, longtime staffer brings personal connection to mission

By Greg Trotter In the heart of Uptown on Chicago’s North Side, a small but mighty food pantry serves hundreds of people a month out of a room that’s not much larger than a walk-in closet. Nancy Martinez is the no-nonsense, kind-hearted captain of this ship. For 13 of her 31 years at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, she’s managed the food pantry and the clothing room. During a recent distribution, Martinez and a volunteer hustled to accommodate the steady influx of visitors, one guest at a time, with an assortment of packaged goods, bread, fresh produce and meat. Some received turkeys for the holiday season.

A personal connection

Asked what inspires her to continue running the food pantry, Martinez fought back tears, remembering how such assistance helped her own parents when she was a child growing up in Humboldt Park. “Our model is to do unto others as you want them to do unto you,” said Martinez, 61. As at other pantries in the city, the people lined up for food were racially and culturally diverse, ranging in age from babies in strollers to the elderly. The pantry, one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s partner agencies, serves more than 550 people and more than 350 households per month, numbers that spike around the holidays. “This little church does so much for the community. We never turn anyone away,” said Barbara Boubin, a former parishioner who moved away but returns regularly to St. Thomas of Canterbury to volunteer.

Nutritious food and respect for every guest

Andre and Barbara select items from the food pantry

Volunteer Barbara Boubin assists Andre Porter with his allotment of food at the St. Thomas of Canterbury Church in Uptown.

Andre Porter was one of about 60 guests to receive food on a recent Friday. Since his release from prison in 2010, Porter said he’s focused on making healthy, positive decisions, one day at a time. Porter, 58, was convicted of crimes that he said he committed to feed his cocaine addiction after losing his job at a liquor wholesaler and divorcing his wife in the early 2000s. Now sober, he relies on the food pantry for nutritious food he wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. He’s also participating in a job training program through Cara, a Chicago nonprofit that specializes in helping adults in need of a second chance find work, he said.
“I just realized that I can’t worry about what happened last month, last year, 20 years ago,” Porter said. “The only thing I have is this moment. And I don’t have any more time to waste on negativity.”
As with other guests, Martinez knew Porter’s name. She anticipated their needs, knowing bits of their life stories and treating each person with respect. Without him saying so, for example, Martinez knew another man’s wife was in the hospital and made sure he got enough food for his whole family. She listened patiently as an elderly Romanian woman, clearly distraught, lamented family members who recently died. She laughed and traded quips with others. And she and Boubin kept moving, a blur of constant activity until the work was done. “We’re here to work,” Martinez said. “That’s what motivates me.”

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