2020 was a year of historic challenge and hardship.
It was also a year marked by unexpected glimmers of hope.
Food pantry leaders across Cook County have seen it all from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. For nearly a year, they have had to reform their normal methods of operation to safely serve record numbers of people facing hunger.
Whether it’s a small-but-mighty pantry like the Interfaith Outreach of Franklin Park, or a larger operation serving thousands like the south suburban Together We Cope – or one that falls somewhere in between – every site in the Food Depository’s network has had a year unlike any before.
The Hunger Beat caught up with several food pantry coordinators from across the Chicagoland area to ask them about the biggest challenges and triumphs of 2020 – and what gives them hope going forward.
The reflections below have been edited for length and clarity.
Northwestern Settlement food pantry, West Town
One of the greatest challenges of 2020, outside of the pandemic throwing everything out of sync, I think was (having to eliminate) choice for the clients. We worked really hard to try and make sure our families are served with dignity and respect and part of that is the ability to choose your groceries, the food that you want and is important to you.
The prepackaged boxes and the CFAP boxes (USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program) were amazing. It saved us. We probably wouldn’t be able to sustain our hours and operations if we didn’t have that. But at the same time, it really did take away from the choice our families had, picking and choosing what was important to them.
The other part is that one-on-one time, that building relationships was really key as well, from people you grew close with. You knew when their doctor’s appointments were or maybe they wanted to have you look at their resume – things we didn’t always do but did when neighbors needed it. That got taken away as well, it really became difficult to do that outside. The recognition of our guests (became) having to guess whose eyes were whose, when half your face is covered with a mask.
The successes of this year were the Settlement’s ability to literally overnight transform the pantry and be able to give food and do that still under the circumstances, and then increase our numbers by 300%. That has been just incredible. And just the random people stopping to help. We have someone who donates baked goods because they work at a bakery and there’s leftover bread, so now she comes and drops it off almost every morning. It’s just people who see us outside and have recognized us and want to help.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to ‘normal,’ but I think we’re going to create a new normal. And it’s going to be a fantastic normal. I think people are going to be more aware of each other, more considerate of each other, and I think really take the time to get to know each other. I think we’re going to celebrate just being able to sit together, to look at each other, stand next to each other.
I’m looking forward to just continuing to create community. I think the Settlement is in the business of creating community and we’re just looking forward to being with our neighbors again, celebrating with them, holding hands again.
New Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church food pantry, West Garfield Park
At the start of the pandemic, the church closed down. So we were down for six weeks. Then I thought, people need food, it can’t stay this way. So I had to design a way I could keep my volunteers safe and keep people out of the church. There are certain volunteers I asked not to come back until after the virus was over because I knew they had a lot of health issues. But I think one of the biggest losses we’ve had is the real connection with the clients. Because before, they came in, they did client choice, and they were around longer so they wanted to talk about an issue they may be having or that kind of stuff.
We had more of a connection with them (before the pandemic). It was almost like being in school, but going to recess. I had one volunteer that would go out and register people in the line, she knew all of them and could tell me what they wanted and what they didn’t like, and they may send the volunteers a thank you. You just don’t get that now. People say thank you and leave.
My biggest success of 2020 is that after closing and opening back up, we were able to stay open. I think they’re grateful because the majority (of our guests) are so familiar with us. It’s not like going to a new food pantry and getting used to the volunteers and staff in that area.
What’s keeping me hopeful for 2021 is hope – just hope itself. It’s got to be better than 2020. And if not, we’ll be better adjusted to the times than we were last year. I don’t think too much is going to change too soon. I think we’re going to be wearing masks for a long time. You can’t go up to people and hug them like we used to anymore. It’s going to be a long time before we get back to what we call normal.
I think my hope comes from faith. You have to have faith.
Together We Cope, Tinley Park
The biggest challenge of 2020 would probably be the quick overhaul of how we run our pantry. Really within a week we completely revamped the way we did it. We turned ourselves into a drive-up. We haven’t had a client or anyone outside of our staff in the building since the second or third week in March. We just completely changed everything. The majority of our volunteers are seniors, so we went from having 15 to 20 volunteers a day to running the pantry with just four staff members. We actually hired two employees from the retail shop we have connected to Together We Cope because the shop had to close.
The staff we brought over from the store, they were just so great. It was emotional for them because we work next door and we all work together, but if you’re not in the pantry seeing the clients and dealing with that, then you really don’t know. They came over and just to see it, to have people crying outside, saying, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much, I can’t believe you guys are still open,’ that really set in for us.
You help people every day and you see them in bad situations, but everybody was in a bad situation. It was terrible for everyone. Just to see it firsthand everyday was kind of a shock.
I know that seems weird because we run a food pantry so we see it, but it was all really highlighted. There was a big light shining on all of it.
Our greatest triumph, number one, is we stayed open. We didn’t close for a day. The one day we came up with the plan, the next day we were here executing it and developing that new crew. Also, our community is so generous to us. We’ve never gone a day where we thought we might not have enough for people, which was also a concern in the beginning: Would supply lines be closed down? Would this place or that place that gives us food close down? All of that stayed open. So not only were we able to stay open, we were able to give more per person who came through than before, because there was just such an influx of people who were willing to help.
Going into this new year, it seems like there may be a glimmer at light at the end of the tunnel. Which helps. The resources staying available, especially from the Food Depository, that’s been amazing. We’re going to have product, we’re going to be able to serve whether it gets better or worse. We’ve had people calling for months asking if they can bring this or that. We can see the light, we’ve got the resources, we’ve got people all over that want to help. It’s kind of hard to get down when everyone around you is trying to lift up. So that’s a really big thing going into the new year.
Interfaith Outreach, Franklin Park
The great challenge is that we have maintained personal choice without letting people into the pantry. That has been a huge challenge. What we did is – and I’m kind of proud of it – is created a pretty fancy shopping list that we change every week based on what’s on our shelves. We hand that out to people as they walk up or drive up and it’s been my husband who’s been having to sit outside and take care of everyone, rain, shine, whatever, to register them and then they fill out those lists. They fill out the list, we take the list inside, we shop for them and we carry the bags out to them so we’re keeping everybody safe and healthy as best we can but still not just pre-bagging or boxing.
(It’s harder to personally shop for everyone, but) we have prided ourselves on being the little pantry with a heart. We’ve always been very personable with our guests. (Pre-pandemic) we were often getting hugs from everybody; the kids loved to come to the pantry.
We’ve always tried to pride ourselves on making sure no one is feeling ashamed for coming to a pantry. That when they come to us, they’re part of the family now.
Honestly, our greatest success is that we have maintained the personal shopping and been able, thanks to the Food Depository, to provide just a mass amount of food to everybody. It’s been wonderful. Our biggest success is that we hung in there and we never had to close and we’re providing as good, if not better service, in that we’re getting such a nice big variety. We’ve been able to do it because the Food Depository’s no-cost food has just been tremendous.
What brings me the most hope is seeing that some of these teens that have been helping us (to fulfill their volunteer hours for local high school National Honors Societies). When I said something recently about knowing that the hours are just about up for most of them and that I’m probably going to lose them, I had a couple of them say ‘we’re not going anywhere.’ That brings me hope. The next generation is getting it and will hopefully step up and continue to help.
Our Lady of Fatima Shrine of Saint Anne food pantry, Brighton Park
There are more good parts about 2020, but besides what the whole world is going through, the biggest challenge for us was seeing the faces. You can’t see the complete faces of the clients but you can see the expressions on their eyes. That’s hard enough to see but then it motivates us all to continue coming and do what we do.
One challenge would be to not able to hug my clients. I think that’s the biggest challenge. I’ve had clients share their gratitude of just not feeling alone, and just being able to come home with something for their kids and family. And then not being able to hug each other just makes it harder. But I can understand and I can feel their sentiment and their gratitude.
The greatest success was our new partnership with the Food Depository (that began at the start of the pandemic), first of all, and having more people come receive food and making it known that we’re here for them. Seeing their happy expressions when they get their food, they are so grateful. That’s our fuel to keep on doing what we do, definitely.
Going into this year, what keeps me hopeful is to continue to get support from the Food Depository, and my volunteers. If I don’t have those two, this would not be happening. I do the whole behind-the-scenes, which I love to do to make it happen. But if I don’t have my two most important factors, it would not be possible.
I am looking forward to 2021 because it’s going to be a better year. We’re going to be able to continue to support those families who need food assistance and help them get stable. Stability is important.