Like millions of parents across the country, Alma Hernandez has struggled to consistently afford nutritious food for her family during the pandemic.

A single mother of four children, Hernandez’s only income comes from selling tamales. Her business has suffered during the prolonged economic crisis. Making matters more difficult, she said, she and her husband divorced last April.

To feed her kids – ages 5, 10, 13 and 17 – she turns to the Blue Cap food pantry in south suburban Blue Island.

A Blue Cap volunteer loads food into a woman's cart.

Volunteer Darran Cathey, at left, places food into Alma Hernandez’s cart at the Blue Cap pantry.

“I love this place,” said Hernandez, 39, as she loaded groceries into her car. “It’s been really hard because my kids eat all day. The food pantry really helps.”

During the pandemic, the Blue Cap pantry has served significantly more people seeking food assistance in Blue Island, reflecting a trend seen throughout the Food Depository’s network of food pantry partners in Cook County. Founded in 1967, the nonprofit also serves another purpose by providing empowering opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. Most of the pantry’s volunteers fit that broad description.

The hope is that working at the pantry will prepare the volunteers for employment and, ultimately, more independent lives, said Regina Brown-White, life enrichment coordinator at Blue Cap.

“They take it seriously,” Brown-White said. “We’re trying to teach them to give back to the community, but also help them get a job.”

Regina Brown-White, life enrichment coordinator at Blue Cap, helps people with intellectual disabilities gain independence.

Regina Brown-White, life enrichment coordinator at Blue Cap, helps people with disabilities gain independence.

Throughout the food distribution on a recent morning, the volunteers bustled about helping their customers, loaded their carts with fresh produce, meat, dairy, grains and packaged goods. Clearly, they took pride in their customer service.

“Do you like our place?” Patrice Ezell, a 23-year-old volunteer, asked me shyly as I watched them in action.

I assured her that I did. Later, I asked her what she has learned while working at the pantry.

“I feel like I’ve learned that I could get a job anywhere,” Ezell said.

Patrice Ezell, a volunteer at the Blue Cap pantry, likes the feeling of helping others in need.

Patrice Ezell, a volunteer at the Blue Cap pantry, likes the feeling of helping others in need.

That aspect of the pantry’s mission has been hampered by the pandemic, as jobs continue to be scarce. Recent data for January show the unemployment rate in Cook County, at 9.8 percent, to be higher than the state and national rates. And that figure doesn’t include people who have stopped looking for jobs because of health or caregiving reasons.

Even before the pandemic, more than one-third of Blue Island residents were at risk of food insecurity, according to the Food Depository’s food insecurity index, which factors in income, unemployment and renter-occupancy data.

The situation has only worsened during the pandemic. At certain points in the last year, the Blue Cap pantry has served as many as 200 families per week, more than double its usual amount.

Meliza Colon, at left, loads food from the Blue Cap pantry into her car.

The need for food assistance has increased in south suburban Blue Island during the pandemic.

“It’s been a life saver,” said Jettie McNutt, 80, who lives in Calumet Park with her daughter, granddaughter and two great-grandchildren, ages 4 and 13. “I tell them that every time I leave.”

At the recent distribution, many of the people receiving food were retirees on fixed incomes who are now trying to help children and grandchildren who lost their jobs in the pandemic. Howard Brown, a 67-year-old retired tractor trailer driver, said that he shares the food from the pantry with his family and friends.

“This is a place where people can come and be respected,” Brown said. “They make you feel good.”

The Blue Cap pantry staff and volunteers pose for a group shot.

The Blue Cap pantry staff and volunteers pose for a group shot.

For several hours, a steady flow of people arrived at the pantry’s door, entering two or three at a time to allow for social distancing inside. Inside, Brown-White established a kind and jovial tone, joking with volunteers and guests, belly-laughing at some of the jokes.

The Blue Cap pantry experience is about more than just food.

“People from the community get to know our individuals and learn to interact with them, too,” Brown-White said. “That builds community.”

Hopefully, as the economy continues to recover, more of the Blue Cap volunteers will find jobs that will allow them to gain more independence. In the meanwhile, they find satisfaction in the work itself.

Blue Cap volunteer Mark Williams helps a pantry guest.

Blue Cap volunteer Mark Williams, at left, is non-verbal, but there’s no mistaking his enthusiasm.

Mark Williams, a Blue Cap volunteer who is also a competitive weightlifter, clearly enjoyed hoisting boxes and loading food into the carts of guests. Williams doesn’t speak, but he communicates through writing, sign language and the pure enthusiasm of his movements.

I regretted not asking Mark questions while I was there, so I asked Ms. Brown-White if he had any additional thoughts to share.

“Mark wanted you to know that he really enjoys working in the food pantry,” Brown-White said in a follow-up email. “He takes his volunteering very seriously and likes to be assigned a task. Once he is told what to do, he likes for others to step back and allow him to do his job.”

Volunteer Darran Cathey waits to help the next pantry guest.

Volunteer Darran Cathey waits to help the next guest.

His coworkers at the pantry shared that sentiment. Darran Cathey, a longtime Blue Cap participant, has worked previously at McDonald’s, among other places.

“I like doing a good job,” Cathey said. “It feels good to help people.”