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Hunger Beat

In Belmont Cragin, food pantry grows with the need

After she and her brother both lost their jobs, it became a challenge for Jasmine’s family to put food on the table.

Until recently, Jasmine, 24, was working at a daycare, and her brother in a local warehouse. The siblings live with their father, who cannot work due to vision impairment.

It was already hard enough to balance rent, rising gas prices and food, she said. But simultaneously losing two incomes “makes it 10 times harder.”

“Coming toward the end of the month, it’s really hard to eat,” she explained.

On a recent chilly fall afternoon, the family visited their local food pantry for the first time – Onward House in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood. To their pleasant surprise, the pantry offered a variety of nutritious food items that they had not expected. The family was able to pick up meat and a variety of fresh produce.

“It’s been really hard, but this is a big blessing from the community,” Jasmine said.

a woman and her child consider food at a food pantry

A family picks up groceries at the Onward House food pantry. Earlier this year, the pantry moved to create space for guests to choose their own groceries. (Photo by Taylor Glascock for the Food Depository)

Return to choice

One of the Food Depository’s oldest community partners, Onward House has been providing relief to its neighbors for over a century through food and other needed resources. The pantry recently celebrated a move into a larger space and has exciting plans to expand further in the coming year to serve more households in need.

This March, Onward House transformed a former storage room in its facility on West Diversey Avenue and moved in its longstanding food pantry operation. Before that, the pantry was based out of the former St. Peter’s United Church of Christ across the street. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the pantry pivoted to serving pre-packed bags and boxes. The move represents a welcome return to a market-style layout where households are able to choose their own groceries with dignity.

“It’s a different experience compared to ‘you get what you get,’” said food pantry manager Lupe Zenon. “They’re happier, they leave more content with what they take home.”

A food pantry staff member smiles at the camera

Lupe Zenon, Onward House's food pantry manager (Photo by Taylor Glascock for the Food Depository)

The pantry serves approximately 500 households a month – many of whom, Zenon said, are immigrant families. Zenon, who joined Onward House this spring, said she sees new faces every week, largely due to an influx of new residents and inflated food prices.

One of the pantry’s new faces is Hector Hernandez, 32, who recently lost his job as a water jet operator. Not long after, he discovered the pantry and has been able to pick up groceries for himself and his two kids, ages 11 and 7.

Amid the stress Hernandez is feeling from the loss of income, his kids are what keeps him going.

“They’re going to be hungry,” he said. “I’ve got to feed them.”

A man carrying groceries wearing a face mask

Hector Hernandez picks up groceries for himself and his two children. (Photos by Taylor Glascock for the Food Depository)

Continuing to grow

Onward House, founded in the West Town neighborhood, has existed in some form since 1893, explained executive director Mario Garcia. As the families they served moved west, so did the organization, opening its Belmont Cragin location in 2008.

With hopes to increase its outreach, the organization has acquired a building – a former funeral home – near the corner of North Central and West Diversey Avenues. Staff hope to start settling into the space in early 2023.

Garcia said they envision a welcome center for new immigrants, a larger food and clothing pantry, and potentially a community health center.

“We want to make it a better experience for people,” Garcia said.

The idea of a larger pantry is exciting for Zenon. Not only does it mean more space to store fresh produce and other important items for her guests, but it also means increasing the program’s profile in the community. She wants more families to know they can turn to them for help.

A large room, the future home of the expanded pantry

Onward House plans to move into a larger space on North Central Avenue in early 2023. (Photo by Taylor Glascock for the Food Depository)

The work is personal for her. Not only did Zenon grow up in Belmont Cragin, but she remembers spending time in pantries during her childhood – both to pick up food as well as to volunteer with her parents.

At the time, she recalled, they were not positive experiences. But now that she’s older, Zenon enjoys giving back, and it influences the experience she wants to provide for those who come through her doors.

“I’m happy to give out food, especially to my neighbors; my own community,” Zenon said. “It’s different when you’re giving out to your own people. Here, it’s like giving to my family members.”

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