Tucked behind a historic church on Chicago’s North Side lives Common Pantry – one of the longest continuously running food pantries in the city.
The pantry’s history, though, is anything but common. In 1967, Common Pantry opened its doors to people facing hunger as part of a collaborative effort among North Side churches. Since the 1980s, it’s been located at the Epiphany United Church of Christ in the North Center neighborhood. Common Pantry joined the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of partners in 1979, the food bank’s first year of operation.
Today, Common Pantry provides food for 300 households a month. In addition to the weekly pantry, it also serves a hot meal on Wednesdays, alongside walk-in services like housing assistance and job search help. The pantry also provides a home delivery service for its aging clients.
“We step up and go beyond,” said Executive Director Margaret O’Conor. “It’s in our history. It’s who we are.”
On a recent afternoon, clients walking in could smell the rich, buttery smell of macaroni and cheese wafting through the room. They settled into chairs, some of them chatting, laughing and playing cards as they waited for their numbers to be called. The mood seemed to match the color of the walls – a radiant yellow.
Nancy Guigle, 79, knows all about the history of Common Pantry. She’s volunteered at the pantry for 20 years.
Known as the pantry’s “secret weapon,” Guigle carries around a mug that another volunteer gave her that says: “Stop me before I volunteer again.”
“People tell me I should quit,” she said. “But as long as I can, I’ll volunteer.”
Guigle started out breaking down boxes in the back, and today she works the front desk of the pantry, working to register clients before they enter the pantry. Throughout the years, she has worn many hats, even stepping in as interim director.
“I’ve kept the orders running when we didn’t have a director,” Guigle said. “I do what I need to do to make sure people get food.”
Guigle calls Carlos Reyes her co-conspirator at the pantry.
About 10 years ago, Reyes lost his limestone laborer job as a result of the Great Recession.
“It killed me,” said Reyes, 65. “I love to work, I had been since I was 13.”
A neighbor told him to visit the pantry after he was having a hard time finding a job.
“I’ve never wanted anyone to just give me anything, so I started volunteering,” Reyes said.
Soon after, Reyes became a paid part-time staff member.
“I quickly learned that this place is all about the people,” Reyes said. “People make you feel comfortable here. The clients appreciate who we are and what we do.”
Gerald Ullrich is one of those clients. He started visiting Common Pantry eight years ago when he retired from the telecommunications industry.
Ullrich, 70, works as a volunteer janitor at Epiphany United Church of Christ, cleaning up the pantry after the Wednesday meal. Ullrich also works odd carpenter jobs to supplement his Social Security benefits.
Living on a fixed income, it can be hard to afford groceries, Ullrich said.
“Life is tough enough without having to worry about food,” Ullrich said. “I eat first because that is vital, then I make sure I have a roof over my head, then pay for my medicine and that’s about all I have enough money to pay for.”
O’Conor aims to make the pantry a sanctuary for clients like Ullrich.
“We started in a church basement and stay here because it’s who we are,” O’Conor said. “We are a part of this community.”