In difficult times, Marisol Lozada turns to her faith to get her through.

“God has not left me behind,” Lozada, 50, said on a recent crisp September morning.

Last year, Lozada made the trip from California to Chicago to visit her mother. After Lozada learned she needed double-knee replacement surgery, she ended up staying far longer than expected. Then, amid her recovery, the pandemic and its travel restrictions hit, extending her stay even longer.

Marisol Lozada at the Northwestern Settlement food distribution

Marisol Lozada at the Northwestern Settlement food distribution

Lozada’s grateful for family members who have provided clothes and other essentials to support her during this stay.

For food, Lozada visits local food pantries like the one hosted by Northwestern Settlement, one of the Food Depository’s community partners located in the city’s Noble Square neighborhood. She was one of about 130 people who lined up down Augusta Boulevard to receive fresh produce, meat and nonperishables.

“It’s a blessing that we’re able to get food,” she said.

Taking the stress off

Since the spread of COVID-19, new faces like Lozada’s have become the norm at the Northwestern Settlement food pantry. Pre-pandemic, Northwestern Settlement – a community organization that offers food and other wide-reaching support services for families in the West Town community area – would serve about 50 to 60 households weekly. Nowadays, serving three days a week, the average is closer to 150 a day, according to Yasmin Rodriguez, Northwestern Settlement’s director of family and emergency services.

“It’s the stories of, ‘I lost my job, I never thought I would be here’…things like that, that’s just very hard to see,” she said.

Yasmin Rodriguez,, Northwestern Settlement’s director of family and emergency services, stops for a photo during its outdoor food distribution

Yasmin Rodriguez, Northwestern Settlement’s director of family and emergency services.

To keep their neighbors safe, Rodriguez and her volunteers have held the pantry outdoors since March, serving people as they step up in six-foot intervals.

It’s been an ongoing challenge to keep up with the rising demand. And with the cold weather coming, Rodriguez said the next hurdle will be if and how they should continue serving outdoors. Despite the stresses, supporting the community she serves – especially during this rising time of need – “means the world” to her.

“We can’t fix everything, but at least to be able to take a little bit of that stress and anxiety away about food so they can focus on job readiness or paying their rent,” she said. “If this is providing an ability to save $30 to go toward something else, that’s amazing.”

‘I just keep pushing for them’

To get through the pandemic, Anna Kizior has found things to keep herself busy. She’ll sew, read and sometimes watch TV. She even has a small garden, where she grows her own vegetables.

Kizior has lived in Chicago for 35 years, after emigrating from a small town in Poland. At 71, she lives in a senior living home not far from Northwestern Settlement.

Anna Kizior, a visitor at the Northwestern Settlement food pantry

Anna Kizior, a visitor at the Northwestern Settlement food pantry

To help put food on the table, she receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and visits the pantry. She likes to make vegetable soups and other Polish-style dishes with the food she receives.

“It’s very helpful,” she said. “I like it. I find something fresh and I save money.”

Before this year, the pantry mostly served older adults living in the nearby senior living facilities, said Rodriguez. But as the need grew, they began to see more families who participate in Northwestern Settlement’s other programs and from the nearby schools, including those who had been laid off or furloughed.

Samson Chukwuemekae moved to Chicago two years ago from Nigeria to pursue his Master of Business Administration degree. Before the pandemic, the 39-year-old father of two was supporting his family as a rideshare driver. After COVID-19 began to spread, he decided that was no longer safe.

Samson Chukwuemekae poses for a photo at the Northwestern Settlement food pantry

Samson Chukwuemekae at the Northwestern Settlement food pantry

He and his family have been getting by with support from friends, their church and the food pantry. It’s been difficult, but his wife and two daughters – ages 7 and 9 – help him persevere.

“I look at my kids, I have to be there for them,” he said. “I just have to keep pushing for them. They’re everything to me. My wife, my kids, they’re all I have.”