Over the past two years, Wendy Daniels has never woken up and not been excited to come to work in the morning.
She can’t think of a better job for her than serving members of the East Garfield Park community as coordinator of Breakthrough Urban Ministries’ Fresh Market.
“When you love something, you just love it,” said Daniels, 46, right before a bustling afternoon of distribution began. More than 100 neighbors showed up to fill their carts and bags with fresh groceries, a busier-than-usual day for the Greater Chicago Food Depository partner agency. Daniels checked in guests as they made their way into the waiting area, offering both warm welcomes and stern reminders, as needed.
“I get to serve in that way and help so many families,” Daniels went on to say.
A personal mission
The Fresh Market pantry is one of the many services provided by Breakthrough, a staple in East Garfield Park for more than 25 years. The organization offers a wide range of support programs for men, women and children.
The need is great in the community. About 65% of the East Garfield Park population lives below 185 percent of the federal poverty line – a common income threshold for some government assistance programs, according to American Community Survey Census data tracked by the Food Depository.
Though she got the job as pantry coordinator just a few years ago, Daniels – a mother of five who lives in the Austin neighborhood – said she’s always been dedicated to feeding and serving others.
Several years ago, before running the Fresh Market, she and her husband had even opened an unofficial, makeshift food pantry in their home. Setting aside part of their grocery budget, Daniels said they provided food essentials to two families each month. The decision stemmed from personal experience, Daniels said.
As the daughter of a single mom, she and her family would sometimes have to visit pantries. The experience back then was not a positive one, she recalled, which is why she wanted to offer something different.
“I just thought, food is the thing that brings folks together,” she said. “We have food when we’re happy, at weddings, celebrations; we have food when we’re sad, at funerals; when folks graduate; when there’s a party. We always attributed that to bringing the family together.”
Now, Daniels applies her personal connection to the mission of ending hunger to her work at Breakthrough, taking pride in making the experience a dignified one.
“To make it feel like I’m actually you, and you’re actually me, I’m just serving you this time,” she explained.
Visitor: Market is a ‘blessing’
Besides food, Daniels’ operation also offers a growing number of additional services, including help applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, voter registration, cooking demos and nutrition classes. Last year, the pantry also started hosting art therapy courses on Wednesdays.
This month, Breakthrough plans to start offering applications for energy services assistance.
“We want to have a one-stop shop,” said Daniels. “If you need things here, we try to provide as much as possible.”
The market provides food to 200 to 300 families during its three distribution days every week, Daniels said. That number doesn’t include those served by Breakthrough’s mobile produce program or those fed by Breakthrough’s women’s and men’s shelters, which are also supported by the Food Depository.
Recently, the pantry has experienced an uptick in visitors, which Daniels credited to recent policy changes affecting SNAP that have resulted in lower monthly benefits for some recipients.
Rhonda Gamble said the Fresh Market has always been a help, but is even more necessary after a recent, unexpected decline in her monthly SNAP benefits.
Gamble, 62, of Garfield Park, said the food she receives also helps support her two daughters and her four grandchildren, ages 6 to 16. She also receives Social Security and disability due to diabetes-related medical issues. She's also fought cancer and congestive heart failure over the years, though she said she's in recovery now.
“It’s a blessing,” Gamble said. “Because you need the extra help. The (SNAP benefits) don’t last for the whole month. So you just need help to supplement, the fresh fruits and vegetables, the canned goods, the meat. Everything helps."
In recent years, Shanita Jones, 37, has turned to Breakthrough’s pantry for items like fresh fruit, and certain types of pasta and bread, which are often too expensive in the grocery store – even with SNAP benefits.
Jones, who said she also recently lost her job, added that she’s grateful to be able to combine items she gets from the store and the pantry to make a full meal.
“It takes some of the stress off,” Jones said. “You got a million other things, (and) food is one of the least of my worries having this establishment here readily available for us in the community.”
Returning the favor
During the recent distribution, volunteer Ralph Jackson was serving up bags of cookies, crackers and bottles of water.
Three years ago, the Memphis native and retired vocational trade teacher moved to Chicago to help his sister and nephew with special needs. In 2017, he turned to the pantry after their home was damaged in an electrical fire.
A few months after that, he had a major surgery to remove artery blockages that he said developed as a result of diabetes. He credits Daniels with helping him discover his diagnosis.
Today, he and his family have been back in their home after a year of reconstruction, and Jackson said he now hopes to return to teaching.
“It’s been really beneficial,” Jackson said of the Fresh Market. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I guess the good Lord wanted me to do this, because he brought me all the way from Memphis to do it.”