Imagine taking the helm at a large food pantry during a global pandemic that’s caused an unprecedented rise in food insecurity.

Such is the case for Gregory Gross, new executive director for Care for Real, a longtime partner of the Food Depository in the Edgewater community on Chicago’s North Side. Gross started his new post in September after working for more than five years at the Night Ministry, another partner serving people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

As a gay man, and as an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, Gross comes to this work with a lifelong commitment to serving others, particularly those who are on the “fringes or on the margins of our society.”

“I’ve always felt called to serve other people,” said Gross, 42. “Everyone should be able to have a place to sleep. To have food in their cupboards and a full belly. What can I do to help make that possible?”

Gregory Gross of Care for Real

Gregory Gross of Care for Real

Like many food pantries, Care for Real has seen a steep rise in the number of people seeking food assistance for the first time. From March through October, the organization provided food to more than twice the number of new households than it did in all of 2019.

Meeting the need with compassion

To respond to rising need, Care for Real launched a pop-up pantry at the United Church of Rogers Park. It also expanded into a second storefront connected to its primary Edgewater location, a move that’s already reduced the amount of time that people are waiting in line for food.

“There are a lot of folks who are experiencing food insecurity for the first time, who have never had to turn to a food pantry before, who didn’t even know what that would look like,” Gross said. “So we’re trying to meet that need with dignity and compassion as best we can.”

A volunteer breaks down boxes at Care for Real, which has seen a rise in need during the pandemic.

A volunteer breaks down boxes at Care for Real, which has seen a rise in need during the pandemic.

Founded by local faith leaders in 1970, Care for Real also provides clothing, and job and financial assistance, to thousands of people each month.

In the long-term, Gross hopes to expand the organization’s outreach to the LGBTQ community, which is disproportionately affected by food insecurity. A 2016 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are far more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity than non-LGBT people.

Already, Care for Real has updated its registration forms to give people an opportunity to identify as transgender or nonbinary.

“We definitely want to be more inclusive,” Gross said.

Uniting faith and service

Gross grew up in the small town of Coldwater, Ohio, which has a population about 4,500 people. His father worked at the local Honda factory; his mother worked at a dental office. Faith was important to his family.

“We always pulled together to help others,” he said. ”I think that’s the core tenet of all the religions – ‘Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.’”

He moved to Chicago for graduate school at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master in Divinity. He went on to receive another graduate degree in social service administration at the University of Chicago. He’s also worked at the Center on Halsted and the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago.

Gross had planned to move back to Ohio. But he fell in love with the diversity and opportunity in Chicago and has remained here ever since.

And now, he’s guiding one of the leading social service organizations on Chicago’s North Side through an ongoing crisis. It’s no small task, but he’s up to the challenge.

“At the end of the day, at the end of the week especially, I’m extremely exhausted, more than I’ve ever been,” Gross said. “But it’s also a good exhaustion in that I can take heart that we are doing good in the community and that we are serving people with dignity and compassion and making sure folks have food on the table tonight. It’s challenging but it’s extremely rewarding.”