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Hunger Beat

Two pantries bridging language and culture to serve a growing number of Asian guests

You would never guess the challenges Mei Jin Chan has known throughout her 78 years from her ready smile and gratitude.

“I really appreciate the food,” Chan said, before sharing the story of why she needs the groceries she receives at the St. James Wabash food pantry in Chicago’s Douglas neighborhood.

After moving from China to the U.S. by herself at 25, fleeing the political unrest that killed several of her family members, Chan eventually secured work as a dishwasher, a job that paid about $100 a month. The man she married was a cook, earning roughly $300 a month.

a woman flashing a peace sign smiles at the camera

Mei Jin Chan says the St. James Wabash food pantry is essential for her and her husband to make it through each month.

Those were typical jobs and wages for Chinese immigrants, she said, and complaining about low pay wasn’t an option if you wanted to keep working. Plus, Chan said, “I was so happy to have a job.”

The couple now does their best to support themselves on their $800 monthly social security benefits. They live in low-income senior housing in Chicago’s Douglas neighborhood and Chan regularly walks the many blocks to the St. James Wabash pantry, where she is especially grateful to receive fresh vegetables. The food is essential for the couple to make it through each month.

“They really help me here,” Chan said of the pantry. “I’m grateful to live in a place that helps people who need it.”

A Changing Community

When Cathy Moore joined the St. James Wabash pantry staff in 2005, the pantry didn’t serve many Chinese-speakers. Then, 99% of their pantry guests were Black, many doing their best to make ends meet in the nearby housing projects, which have since been torn down, separating families and forcing them to find homes elsewhere throughout the city.

Today, Moore is the director of food pantry programs at St. James Wabash, which serves Chinatown and Chicago’s Douglas, Armour Square, South Loop, Bronzeville and Bridgeport neighborhoods. Moore now estimates that 75% of their more than 300 pantry guests each week are Asian, a figure that rises when you add in their home deliveries to those who are physically unable to visit the pantry themselves.

a woman sits behind a desk

Cathy Moore, director of food pantry programs at St. James Wabash, checks in one of their pantry guests.

The transformation started with the Chinatown revitalization in 2006-2007, she said, and now includes the growing Asian population in neighborhoods near Chinatown, as the cost of living there has spiked and pushed many residents to more affordable neighborhoods nearby, including Bridgeport and Armour Square.

Though the demographics of the St. James Wabash pantry guests have changed, Moore’s commitment to her guests remains steadfast, rooted in her own experiences with food insecurity and homelessness.

“The pantry is a place where guests should feel welcomed and loved,” she said. “It should be a place of empowerment.”

That welcoming spirit inspired Moore to post signage throughout the pantry in English and Chinese and to color code other signs and labels to help bridge communication gaps. Moore now requests culturally appropriate foods for the pantry from the Food Depository, knowing their guests prefer fresh vegetables, don’t eat many canned goods and often ask for oatmeal, rice and cooking oil.

a woman stands outside with a box full of groceries

Qi Lou Geng appreciates that the St. James Wabash pantry is close to her home.

Qi Lou Geng, 73, appreciates the availability of these familiar foods. She visits the St. James Wabash food pantry regularly to get eggs, oil and rice to cook for herself and her son, who lives with her. “I like that it’s close to my home,” she said, while loading up her rolling grocery cart for her walk home.

A Desperate Need

Winnie Lei, 51, visited the food pantry at Our Lady of Fatima in Brighton Park on a recent Saturday to receive food for her family, which includes her husband and their three teenaged children. Lei started visiting the pantry during the pandemic, when affording food for her family became nearly impossible.

Lei’s husband works in a restaurant, an industry that was hard hit during COVID-19 closures. Mei, who doesn’t currently work, goes to the grocery store sparingly, only shopping sales. Everything is expensive, she said, especially basics like milk, eggs and produce.

a woman shops in a food pantry

Winnie Lei says the food pantry at Our Lady of Fatima is her family's main source of food.

“This is our main source of food,” Lei said of the pantry at Our Lady of Fatima. “I don’t know what we’d do without it.”

Brighton Park has seen even more change than the Douglas neighborhood in recent years. From the 2010 to 2020 census, the Asian population grew 117% in Brighton Park and now accounts for about 10% of the community, inching up on the Hispanic majority. Our Lady of Fatima’s pantry reflects that trend. About 75% of the pantry guests are Asian, and all of the staff and volunteers are Hispanic.

Irene Tovalin, the pantry manager, has arranged the pantry like a supermarket, with signage in English, Spanish and Chinese. She knows the pantry is a desperate need for many families simply from the fact that some start lining up for the 10 a.m. pantry at 5 a.m. They serve more than 100 guests from an array of communities – Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Black and Caucasian – each week, not counting the couple dozen households where volunteers deliver food to those unable to pick it up themselves.

a woman in a ball cap smiles at the camera

Irene Tovalin, the pantry manager at Our Lady of Fatima, says the food pantry can be summed up in two words: peace and love.

Building Bridges

Mei Huang, 57, is one of the many Asian neighbors who moved to Brighton Park in the past decade, relocating from another part of Chicago. Originally from China, she moved to the U.S. with her parents and sister when she was 26. Huang can’t work for health reasons and grows vegetables in their garden at home to help feed her family, which includes her husband and their 19-year-old daughter.

“I get almost all our food here,” Huang said of the Our Lady of Fatima food pantry. “I honestly don’t know what we’d do without it.”

a woman shops at a food pantry with the help of another woman

Mei Huang shops at the Our Lady of Fatima pantry with the help of a volunteer.

Tovalin hears similar feedback from many pantry guests, along with abundant gratitude. “A lot of guests say how happy they are we’re in their neighborhood,” she said, adding how much these positive words mean to them, especially as they try their best to bridge language and cultural gaps.

“This pantry can be summed up in two words: peace and love,” Tovalin said.

“That goes both ways. We seek to give those things and we certainly feel their understanding and appreciation in return.”

When you support the Food Depository, you help us equip our partner pantries to be a trusted source of food assistance for our neighbors in need.

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