Sherrie Sutton, 66, still remembers the first time she took home some of the refrigerated prepared meals from Chosen Tabernacle food pantry in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
When Sutton heated them up for the children in her care, “they licked the bowl clean and were sad that we didn’t have more,” she said with a laugh.
Sutton fosters seven children ages 2 to 18, and the meals help the working mom keep her family fed. Whenever she needs to leave the older kids at home, the prepared meals ensure they’ll eat a healthy meal while she’s gone.
“(The meals) have been a lifesaver for me and my seven,” Sutton said.
Eloise Beasley, 74, appreciates that the prepared meals help her manage her diabetes. Affording groceries on a fixed income isn’t easy, nor is finding low-sodium foods when she’s grocery shopping at dollar stores. “The meals come in handy. And they’re delicious!” Beasley said, adding that it’s also nice not having to turn on the oven in the heat of summer.
More meals for more neighbors
Sutton and Beasley are just two of the neighbors the Greater Chicago Food Depository is eager to provide even more meals for when our new prepared meals facility is complete in 2024, part of our multi-year Nourish Project.
Our goal is to serve neighbors who experience specific challenges with accessing, affording and preparing food. Some don’t have access to a kitchen or have physical limitations that make cooking a challenge. Others have diabetes, heart disease or other medical conditions that are often greatly improved by low-sodium or other healthy foods. Unfortunately, many of those healthy items are a challenge to access or afford.
Still other neighbors are parents working two jobs and struggling to find the time and energy to cook for their kids. These healthy prepared meals are designed to help all of these neighbors at heightened risk of food insecurity.
We currently distribute prepared meals to a set number of our partner food pantries, part of a pilot program to identify best practices as we scale up meal production. Our new facility will be six to seven times larger than our current kitchen, allowing us to increase our daily production of healthy, made-from-scratch meals from 600 to 10,000 meals.
“That’s thousands of people getting dinner who aren’t getting it now,” said Larry Weger, the Food Depository’s senior director of meal manufacturing, adding that the growth will also generate new job opportunities. We anticipate completion of the facility in early 2024.
In addition to preparing meals on site, the Food Depository purchases and distributes prepared meals from local, minority and women-owned businesses, and community organizations. This sourcing supports our commitment to equity by investing directly in communities that have been impacted by generations of systemic inequities leading to higher levels of poverty and food insecurity. The ultimate goal is removing our neighbors’ need for food pantries altogether, creating a hunger-free community.
Pastor Sandy Gillespie, who runs the food pantry at Chosen Tabernacle, says that whenever prepared meals are available at her pantry, they go quick. She points to a couple key reasons for their popularity.
Many of the roughly 200 guests who visit Chosen Tabernacle’s pantry each week are older adults. “A lot of them are male guests with limited mobility or who don’t have the ability to cook,” Gillespie said. “They’ll select simple, easy things to prepare when they visit the pantry.”
"A lot of them say the (prepared) meals are a godsend.”
Lee Kinnard, 70, is one such guest. After decades of working on his feet at Kraft Foods, Kinnard says his legs get stiff when he stands in his kitchen cooking. He often uses a cane to get around, and much of that getting around is in service to others, volunteering at the food pantry and other locations four days a week.
Kinnard appreciates the prepared meals when he doesn’t feel like cooking, noting the salmon and chicken meals are his favorites, and says the meals are convenient, tasty and healthier than much of what he cooks for himself.
Pastor Gillespie is especially grateful that the prepared meals are healthy, as she often lovingly encourages guests to cut down on fried foods. “You can’t eat rib tips or fried pork chops three or four times a week,” she tells them, knowing that many of her pantry guests have high blood pressure or diabetes, or are at risk for these conditions.
“The need in our neighborhood is great,” she said. Most of the guests receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. And their building is located right next door to low-income senior housing. On a recent day, when the pantry distribution started at 1:00 p.m., Gillespie pulled into the parking lot at 9:30 a.m. and people were already lined up.
“We do what we can to make a dent,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Thanks to the ongoing support of our donors, the Food Depository is grateful to equip Pastor Gillespie, as well as pantries and other meal programs throughout Cook County, with a vital new tool in that labor, working toward a hunger-free community one meal at a time.