The end of the school year was a huge relief for Kaneisha Jackson.

Her 6-year-old daughter, Leilani, completed first grade completely online. It was a long, stressful year for the pair.

On a recent, breezy June afternoon, the mother and daughter were planning to get rid of some of their “cabin fever” by taking a walk along the scenic lakefront in their South Shore neighborhood. First, they stopped to pick up some groceries at the Windsor Park Lutheran Church food pantry.

The pandemic – and the stay-at-home orders that followed – led to job insecurity, said Jackson, 31, who works as a restaurant cook.

“It’s been rough,” she said. “I’ve been through a couple jobs. It hasn’t been steady.”

Amid the struggles, it’s her daughter that keeps her strong.

“Just looking at her and her smile – there’s some days I want to break down but I can’t,” Jackson said.

Leilani, 6, picks up a pineapple from her mother's food cart.

Leilani, 6, picks up a pineapple from her mother’s food cart.

She has a job in a ramen restaurant now, and she received word recently that one of the restaurants she used to work at in an airport lounge will be opening back up. With these positive changes ahead, Jackson said having a place to pick up food means one less stress for her to manage.

“They help a lot,” she said. “They’ve kept my refrigerator, my pantry stocked.”

Expanding quality and quantity

The Windsor Park pantry, a Food Depository partner, has been a South Shore staple for more than 30 years. To expand its service to its community, which has been disproportionately affected by food insecurity both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry was a recipient of one of the Food Depository’s equity grants. Since the beginning of the pandemic the Food Depository has allocated nearly $5 million in grants toward strengthening the emergency food system, particularly in lower-income communities of color.

“There’s so much need in the community,” coordinator Joyce Gittens said as she moved swiftly between the church’s former indoor pantry space to its Fellowship Hall, now being used for overflow food storage. Since March 2020, the food distribution has operated outside for social distancing.

“That’s my passion,” she continued. “I don’t want to see individuals go without.”

Joyce Gittens (center) leads a prayer with the volunteers before a recent distribution. The church's Fellowship Hall has been used to store extra food since the start of the pandemic.

Joyce Gittens (center) leads a prayer with the volunteers before a recent distribution. The church’s Fellowship Hall has been used to store extra food since the start of the pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, Gittens said that while other local food pantries had to close their doors, they stayed open, bringing an influx of visitors to their Saturday morning distributions.

“We saw over 500 families every weekend,” she recalled. “This was the only source of food.”

Today, she said, the pantry serves about 400 households monthly. However, that’s still far more than their pre-COVID averages of 200 to 300 households monthly.

A Tuesday evening distribution at Windsor Park Lutheran Church food pantry. The pantry has been operating outdoors since March 2020.

A Tuesday evening distribution at Windsor Park Lutheran Church food pantry. The pantry has been operating outdoors since March 2020.

With the grant’s support, they will have funding for additional shelving and a walk-in cold storage unit. The cold storage will take up half of the former pantry space, enabling them to adequately serve fresh produce and other perishable goods to everyone who comes to their door – no matter if they’re first or last in line.

The grant has also allowed them to add another distribution day. For decades, Windsor Park has only served on Saturday mornings. Since March, they’ve also started serving on Tuesday afternoons, which accommodates different work schedules and families with kids. Gittens also noted that the new day has attracted older adults who were nervous to wait in line during the Saturday rush.

With this new funding, Gittens is looking forward to being able to serve her neighbors without the current storage limitations, allowing them to take home more healthy items for their families.

“It’s about having enough nutritious fruits, vegetables, eggs, bread (and more),” she said. “Our clients will be able to receive all of that on a more regular basis and in a larger quantity, and they’ll welcome that.”

‘It’s good for the neighborhood’

It was Michael Pharr’s first time visiting his neighborhood pantry. The lifelong Chicagoan just moved down the street a few months ago. Pharr, 69, retired two years ago from housekeeping at the Jesse Brown V.A. Hospital. He’s a veteran himself, serving in the Army from 1968 to 1978.

Some friends told him about the pantry because he’s had difficulty enrolling in SNAP over the phone since state offices have been closed. With his retirement, it can be difficult to balance the cost of rent, bills, and enough groceries.

Michael Pharr poses for a photo in front of Windsor Park Lutheran Church

Michael Pharr

At Windsor Park, he was able to fill his cart with the essentials: fruits and vegetables, eggs, bread, coffee, and much more.

“It’s good for the neighborhood,” he said of the pantry. “If you don’t have (food), you can get it. I’m not ashamed to get it. I need it. And I appreciate it being here.”

For the last 20 years, volunteer Arlivia Williamson has watched the pantry evolve into what it is today. It started simple: those who had food to spare could bring it to the church and those in need could pick it up. Then, with help from the Food Depository, it grew into guests being able to choose their own items from tables of food each week.

Now, as they continue to grow to meet their community’s needs, she said it speaks to the church’s mission to be a resource for those who need it – not just on Sundays.

“We hope to feed the body and the soul,” she said. “It is to be about what you talk about. You can’t just talk a good talk unless you walk the walk. I like to think at Windsor Park we try to do as much as we can – to serve.”