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Hunger Beat

Creating a dignified pantry experience at a new location

2010 was a challenging year for Ravenswood resident Lisa Griffin. After suffering a stroke, tragically losing her son and having to retire from a job that she loved as a nursing assistant, Griffin finally had to admit she needed help. That’s when she first walked through the doors of her local food pantry, Common Pantry.

Since then, she visits the pantry occasionally and takes comfort in knowing that it’s there whenever she experiences financial hardship. However, lately, she says her visits have become more frequent.

a woman at a food pantry smiles at the camera

Lisa Griffin says she finds relief at Common Pantry. Photos by Jamie Kelter Davis for the Food Depository.

“Everything costs more now. I feel like I cannot breathe!” says Griffin, 84. She says her anxiety levels rise when her Social Security retirement benefits are depleted and she still has a week before her next check arrives. The pantry brings her relief.

“I’m very happy to have this place,” she says.

Wendy Garcia, 51, agrees. Every month, she visits Common Pantry in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood to pick up food to feed herself, her daughter and three grandchildren who live with her. Garcia has been visiting the pantry for about five years, after a hand injury ended her ability to continue working.

She receives $250 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits a month, which she describes as “not enough.”

“I can go shopping two times only with this. It’s really hard,” she says. The items she picks up at the pantry help her make ends meet – something that has become increasingly more difficult over the last year due to inflation, rising food prices and the expiration of several public assistance programs that were introduced to help people weather the pandemic. Despite hearing from news reports that prices have stabilized, Garcia says groceries still feel unaffordable.

pantry guests and volunteers

Wendy Garcia shops at Common Pantry's new location.

“The need is still very much here,” says Margaret O’Conor, the executive director of Common Pantry. According to O’Conor, the pantry serves approximately 800 households a month through its three food distribution events a week – 43 percent more guests than last year. The Food Depository’s Produce Mobile also delivers supplementary fresh fruit and vegetables for the pantry to distribute the third Monday of every month.

A new home

The pantry relocated to a new site at 3908 North Lincoln Avenue recently, a move that couldn’t have come at a better time.

Common Pantry’s former site was housed in the small basement of a nearby church where they have been serving neighbors experiencing food insecurity since 1979, making them one of the Food Depository’s oldest food access partners.

an inside view of a food pantry

Inside Common Pantry's new location

The new building is more spacious and will enable the pantry to reach even more guests. There are no tight corners to maneuver around or stairs to climb while holding heavy bags of groceries as was the case at the former site.

The new location also includes temperature-controlled storage space, a comfortable back porch for social interaction and a communal multi-purpose room.

Shopping with dignity

“I like it here. It’s bigger,” says Wendy Garcia. When asked to name her favorite feature, Garcia shared that she’s a big fan of the shopping carts. Now that the pantry is on one level, guests are able to peruse the items on offer and load up their carts with the assistance of volunteers, just as they would in their local grocery store. Before, due to lack of space, guests indicated their selections from a printed list of items which were then assembled into bags by the pantry’s hardworking volunteers.

O’Conor says the guests’ ability to select their own items may seem like a small detail, but it has the power to change the entire pantry experience for her guests. Providing a dignified shopping experience is something that she pays great attention to.

a woman stands in front of a food pantry holding flowers

Wendy Garcia appreciates the flowers she sometimes selects at Common Pantry.

During this particular visit, Garcia is able to pick-up some flowers, describing them as a nice touch. “They make me feel happy – special,” she says with a big smile. It’s not often she’s able to buy flowers to brighten her home.

Occasionally, the Food Depository’s community retail partners include non-food items such as flowers as part of their food rescue donations to local pantries. Common Pantry also collects quality food from its local grocery stores and shares it with other pantries in the area as part of a newer, more efficient approach to food rescue. This new approach involves a partnership between the Food Depository, local pantries and nearby food retailers.

A time for connection

For Lisa Griffin, her favorite aspect of the new location is the spacious community room located next to the pantry. Once a week, Common Pantry hosts a soup kitchen in the space, serving a hot nutritious meal on ceramic plates before its Wednesday food distributions. The soup kitchen provides guests with a chance to connect.

“It’s not just about the food,” says O’Conor, adding that she’s noticed many guests enjoy the opportunity to socialize with their neighbors.

“I like it here a lot better,” says Lisa Griffin. “It’s very convenient.”

Expansions such as Common Pantry’s are making a difference in communities across Cook County and are possible, in part, to the contributions of the Food Depository’s generous supporters. Because of this commitment, our network partners are able to strengthen their operations and build capacity to better serve our neighbors in need.

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