While waiting for her turn to select her groceries, Eleanor Booker said the cup of coffee she was sipping on was helping her stay awake.
That morning, Booker, 52, said she finished a 12-hour shift at the local factory she works at and then took her three grandkids, ages 4-11, to their first day of school. After that, she came to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ food pantry in Humboldt Park.
She also receives SNAP benefits to help her with food, but said her local pantry helps her eat healthy and allows her meals to “stretch longer” for her family, which includes the kids, her daughter, and her dad.
Booker has been coming to the pantry for the last five to six years. And since then, the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels has come a long way since operating out of a community center closet.
On a rainy, early September Tuesday morning, guests of the West Side pantry maneuvered through the aisles of a remodeled kindergarten classroom at the former Catholic school sitting on West Iowa Street. Assisted by volunteers and the energetic group of young nuns who keep it all running, they filled grocery carts with selections from stacked shelves and boxes of produce, dairy, bread, and non-perishables.
“What it’s giving out is enough to help provide and feed for the community,” Booker said of the operation.
Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s partner agencies, moved into its upgraded pantry space earlier this year.
It is just the first phase of a $3 million overhaul of the school building to transform it into a centralized hub for community support. The mission hopes to have the project largely completed by Easter 2020.
“We’ve expanded so much, to be a part of that transformation each step of the way is just incredible,” new pantry coordinator Sister Laura Toth, 29, said of the additions. “And I’ve seen how as we’re better able to meet the needs of people, it just becomes a place of community and peace.”
They moved into the school about two years ago. As construction was underway, distribution occurred in the hallway and its current model of allowing visitors to choose their food items was slowly rolled out.
Toth, a member of the convent for the last four years, recalled operating out of the small space in nearby Kelly Hall, when giving bags of food to 70 families was a huge deal. Today, Tuesday distributions serve more than double that, a figure that Sister Stephanie Baliga said has grown since coming to the school in 2017.
“It’s just dramatically increased the dignity of the whole experience, because our pantry is very much like a grocery store,” Baliga, 31, said of the new system. “And it’s actually like shopping at a store.”
Aside from the distribution room stacked with shelves of food, the additions also include a spacious walk-in fridge and freezer, as well as a separate storage room for non-perishables.
Prior to that, all pantry food was stored in the convent basement.
Since the move and the addition of the storage spaces, Baliga added, the pantry has been able to receive – and distribute — more than triple the amount of food it once could.
“We’ve heard since the new pantry opened from a couple people that they do feel food secure,” Baliga said.
New guest: Pantry ‘changes your perspective’
The recent distribution day served around 115 guests, a figure the sisters and volunteers said felt small in comparison to the last few months – and they credited to bad weather and coming off the heels of Labor Day Weekend. Nowadays, Baliga and Toth said the pantry typically serves 150-200 households weekly, not including the mobile distribution it offers every first Saturday of the month.
One of those newer visitors is Isa Valdez. She and her brother-in-law, Carlos, have been coming for the last few months after losing their jobs at the same magazine distribution company. She said the business abruptly closed earlier this year.
Before learning about the pantry, the Belmont-Cragin resident she said she didn’t know places like it existed.
“I’m so grateful, because if it wasn’t for this, we would really go hungry,” said Valdez, 37. The food from the pantry helps feed about 15 people altogether, she said, between her sister, nephews, nieces and other family members.
Isa and Carlos have found part-time work as they continue to search for new full-time jobs. But the access to food keeps her from feeling like all is lost, she said.
“It’s just, to know that these places exist, it changes your perspective,” Valdez said. “I just call it a little bit of time. You’re given hope and time.”
A community support system
The sisters also have more plans to transform their facility.
Walking through the first floor of the school building, Baliga explained that the mission plans to add a kitchen with hopes of offering hot meals, organizing programs for senior citizens and more. She also mentioned updating the pantry waiting area. Pending city permits, she hopes to have some of that complete by Christmas.
Booker, who described the space as a “family-oriented support system,” said aside from the pantry remodel she said she’s happy to see the growing number of group activities offered by the sisters, including children’s summer camps.
Baliga said she’s looking forward to being able to “fill in the gaps” of service on the West Side with the new offerings. She said she’s noticed an increase in neighborhood need, which she credited to federal policy changes to SNAP and changes in local demographics.
“It’s our neighborhood too, so we want to see these issues be resolved,” she said. “So we’re all working together to try and do what we can to help everybody, because a lot of people need extra help right now.”
Learn more about the pantry’s history in our previous blog post